The Ministry of Defense’s account that an alleged kidney trafficking ring at its Preah Ket Mealea military hospital was in fact a fully legal training program in partnership with China’s Defense Ministry was met with questions and confusion Tuesday.
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh said he had no knowledge of the program, which Cambodia’s Defense Ministry says was a “secret.”
After a two-month investigation into allegations of an organ smuggling ring at the military hospital, anti-human trafficking police rounded up eight suspects, including the hospital’s director, Lieutenant General Ly Sovann, and a deputy director, Major General Keo Davuth, for questioning on Saturday.
But all suspects were released and the case was dropped after the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) generals who run the hospital, backed by Defense Minister Tea Banh, claimed that volunteer Vietnamese patients were admitting themselves into a training program being run in partnership with China.
Gen. Banh has maintained that China’s Defense Ministry sent a professor to train Cambodian doctors in kidney transplant surgery and that Vietnamese patients—whose identities remain unknown —were simply taking advantage of the service.
However, Cheng Hong Bo, spokesman for the Chinese Embassy and chief of its political section, said he was not aware of the program, which would be the first of its kind in Cambodia.
“I don’t think we have this kind of agreement,” Mr. Hong Bo said Tuesday. “But I’m not at liberty to say because I don’t have enough information.”
Mr. Hong Bo said in the morning he would ask around the embassy about the program to see if he could confirm its existence. Contacted later in the day, he said he had been unable to figure out what program Gen. Banh was referring to.
Sin Somuny, executive director of Medicam, an umbrella network of health care NGOs in the country, said Cambodia has never had the capacity to perform kidney transplant surgeries.
“I never heard of the collaboration [with China],” he said. “As far as I know, if you need a kidney transplant, you need to go to Vietnam.”
Mr. Banh could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
General Nem Sowath, director-general of the Defense Ministry’s foreign affairs and cooperation department, refused to discuss the agreement with China or details of the program.
“I cannot talk about it because it is a secret,” he said, adding that the police raid of the military hospital “should never have happened.”
Mr. Sowath said the military operates under its own rules and that the police overstepped their authority by detaining and questioning suspects before getting the full story from Lt. Gen. Sovann and Maj. Gen. Davuth.
“Their ranks are lieutenant general and major general, so they have their rules themselves,” he said.
Prum Santhor, deputy Phnom Penh police chief in charge of anti-human trafficking, said on Monday that his division dropped the case at the behest of RCAF top brass, who assured police that there was no wrongdoing.
Mr. Santhor also admitted that his officers had not determined whether or not money was changing hands as part of the transplants, which would be a blatant violation of the law.
According to Cambodia’s human trafficking laws, it is “irrelevant” if organ donors consent to surgery if they are enticed to do so. Removal of a person’s organs through “enticement” is punishable by seven to 15 years in jail, bumped up to 15 to 20 years if the accused is a public official abusing his or her authority or if the crime is committed by an organized group.
General Chhum Socheat, spokesman for the Defense Ministry, and Lt. Gen. Sovann also refused Tuesday to discuss the military’s partnership with China or details of the kidney operations.
Brigadier General Top Saran, a deputy director of the hospital, said China has been assisting the hospital for a long time but added that she “did not know about the program of the kidney transplanting.”
The prosecutor’s office of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, whose short-lived investigation into the case was led by deputy prosecutor Meas Chanpiseth, on Monday issued a rare press release reiterating Gen. Banh’s position that no laws were broken.
“After serious investigations and based on relevant documents,” the office’s statement reads, prosecutors determined that “the case as referred to is not a crime of trafficking human organs as mentioned in Cambodian penal code as was published by some newspapers.”
The prosecutor’s statement cites two diplomatic protocols signed between Cambodia and China, dated July 2013 and June 2014, along with an official invitation for a Chinese medical professor to visit the Preah Ket Mealea hospital dated December 2013 as evidence that the operations there were legitimate.
Mr. Chanpiseth did not question the generals involved, and declined Tuesday to expand on the statement.
“I explained the meaning in the statement already, so please read the statement,” Mr. Chanpiseth said, refusing to comment any further.
Local media outlets this week quoted anonymous doctors at the hospital saying that a trafficking ring had existed at the hospital for years and claiming that kidneys removed from patients at the hospital were being sold for up to $40,000 to wealthy recipients.
Opposition CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay said Tuesday that the Defense Ministry’s failure to offer a transparent explanation of what was actually happening at the hospital was fueling public speculation about the alleged kidney trafficking ring.
“If it can’t be explained, it could be that someone in the government has intervened, which is normal in this country,” he said. “Someone very powerful could have covered something up.”