A couple arrested in September for renting 20 children from their parents and forcing them to sell fruit on Phnom Penh’s streets and at beer gardens stood trial on Thursday at the municipal court.
Nine of the children testified during the hearing, explaining how they had been made to work until 3 or 4 a.m., got insufficient sleep and were forced to share a stifling room. While the husband never beat them, one girl said, the wife sometimes “slightly” hit them.
“The place for sleeping was not good because boys were sleeping with the girls,” a 14-year-old girl told the court via video link, adding that she often resorted to sleeping on a table outside.
In September, anti-human trafficking police raided Chea Sady and Then Vanthai’s Chbar Ampov district home, where they found 22 children being held in cramped quarters.
Ranging in age from 6 to 17, the children were part of a labor ring forced to work through the night and into the early morning to pay off money given to their parents by an unknown middleman. Officials said some children had been there for as long as four years.
Two of the 22 were the couple’s own children, lawyers said on Thursday, and one of the “rented” children—a niece—had since died of a liver disease, possibly exacerbated by the poor living conditions.
The pair is standing trial for “subjecting a minor to working conditions that are harmful to his or her health,” but in light of the death, Chea Sophy, a lawyer for the victims, on Thursday urged the court to add the charge of “aggravating circumstances as a consequence of the death of a minor,” which can carry a 15-year prison sentence.
Both Mr. Sady and his wife Ms. Vanthai denied breaking any laws, saying the bulk of those found in their care were the children of poor relatives they had taken in as a favor.
“I brought them here with the agreement of their parents and they are the nephews and nieces of my wife,” Mr. Sady told the court.
“I don’t want to bring them, but seeing their poor living condition—some go to school and some did not and also they are my nephews and nieces—that is why I decided to bring them,” he said. “I did not know it is wrong when I brought them here.”
Asked by Presiding Judge Yin Saroeun whether the children arrived with the permission of their parents, Mr. Sady said there was “agreement from all of their parents.”
While Mr. Sady admitted the living conditions were less than ideal, he insisted the children worked only from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., and noted that they were never beaten and were given enough food—a claim the children concurred with. He said some children stayed out later in order to make more tips.
Ms. Vanthai, who police previously named as Khen Vandy, said the children received regular wages, adequate food and were never exposed to violence.
The couple’s lawyer, Kim Ratana, asked for the minimum sentencing, saying his clients were ignorant of the law and noted that the parents had willingly handed over their children to a couple that provided them with housing and food.
“Their parents voluntarily sent them because they are farmers and they faced drought.”
Outside the court, Oun Toeu, 45, from Prey Veng province, was standing with her daughter, who was among the alleged victims. Asked why she had handed her child to the couple, Ms. Toeu said she felt she had no options.
“I’m poor. I am a farmer and my living condition is very low,” she said.
A verdict in the case is due on February 3.