Teen-Agers Set for Detention in Prison
In a move that has outraged a local agency that protects victims of sexual trafficking, Phnom Penh Municipal Court has issued a warrant for the arrest of at least 15 underage Vietnamese girls on charges of illegal immigration.
The girls, who were rescued in a police raid on a Phnom Penh brothel district, are currently under the care of Afesip in Tuol Kok district.
On Monday, Khut Sopheang, a municipal court prosecutor, signed the warrant for their arrest.
“I charged them on Monday by the immigration law for illegal entrance into Cambodia,” Khut Sopheang said Tuesday.
But Tuol Kok district police have not yet heard any news of the warrant, and have no plans to arrest them until they have one, District Police Chief Kim Hourn said.
Phuong Sophy, deputy bureau chief of the Ministry of Interior’s Juvenile Protection Against Child Exploitation Department, said he has not received the court’s warrant, but was informed of the warrant on Monday. He said he will follow the warrant and detain the girls.
The courts were closed Tuesday for the public holiday. Afesip officials say the girls are victims of human trafficking—not criminals—and should be protected instead of prosecuted.
Sao Chhoeurth, technical coordinator for Afesip, said Monday that all of the girls are trafficking victims taken from a raid of three Svay Pak brothels on May 23. All of them are under 16, and some of them were trafficked by their own parents, he said.
The 17 girls freed in the raid are staying at the center, Sao Chhoeurth said Monday. He expected the entire group could be arrested, although court officials confirmed only 15 names were on the warrant.
The girls have already been questioned by the court once, Sao Chhoeurth said in an interview at the agency’s Tuol Kok building.
“If you look at them,” he said, pointing to a group of girls playing jump rope, several of them clearly years away from sexual maturity, “you can see how old they are.”
But when the girls are arrested, they will be treated as any other criminal and sent to Prey Sar prison to await trial, Khut Sopheang said.
“They will be detained as other prisoners in Prey Sar, because we do not have any special place for them,” he said. “By the law, they would be detained from three to six months waiting to be tried, then the Ministry of Interior would decide how to expel them from the country.”
Phnom Penh Investigating Judge Buning Bunnary confirmed the warrant for the arrest of 15 girls, but said that because they are underage, courts will keep them in prison for just one month while an investigation is under way.
“First, we find they are victims of human trafficking. But then when we investigated through questioning, they told us they are from Vietnam and came into the country without documents,” he said. “So now, they are not victims anymore. They have become the violators of Cambodian law for illegal entrance into the country.”
The view of the courts is not one shared by Pierre Legros, who stepped down from his position at Afesip and now acts as a voluntary adviser to the NGO and others.
“A victim is a victim…. We’re not going to change immigration by bringing 17 Vietnamese girls to jail,” he said.
Donors to Afesip expected the agency to rehabilitate prostitutes, not hold them for the police to make an arrest, he said.
“We are not a detention center,” he said. “We are an NGO. We work with the victim.”
But Nop Sophon, deputy director of the municipal court, also said the girls had broken the law and must be investigated.
“By the law, it would be easy, because we have the immigration law that can detain and expel them,” he said.
Legros, however, said he wants authorities to find another way. “I can’t look at my face in the mirror if I give these 17 girls to the police,” he said.