The Phnom Penh Municipal Court Wednesday awarded a much-criticized adoption agency accused of trafficking children permanent custody of 11 children involved in a long-running custody battle between the agency and a human rights NGO.
The courts also ordered the human rights group Licadho to pay $1,282 to the Asian Orphans Association, but did not specify why Licadho had to pay damages.
The Municipal Court’s decision reverses a December judgment by the Appeals Court of Phnom Penh. The Appeals Court had ruled the children should be removed from the care of the Asian Orphans Association and placed temporarily in the care of Licadho.
“We do not let Licadho take the children in their custody because the organization is not an expert on caring for children and they have no parents to take care of the children,” said Chin Chiva, deputy prosecutor for the Municipal Court. “Licadho is an international organization and follows up on human rights violations and investigations, and therefore wouldn’t be the right ones to care for the children.”
The AOA won custody because it is one of the orphan centers currently registered with the Ministry of Social Affairs, is recognized by the government and has experience working with children, Chin Chiva said.
No AOA officials could be reached Thursday for comment. Naly Pilorge, acting director for Licadho, denounced the decision.
“Licadho is a human rights organization mandated to protect human rights and the human rights of children, and we never claimed to physically care for the children,” Pilorge said Thursday. “We always worked with international NGOs [equipped] to care for the children.” Pilorge did not identify the NGOs.
Pilorge noted many inconsistencies in Wednesday’s trial, including changed statements from witnesses and recanted testimony. For example, the two police officers who originally discovered the children last Sept 3 filed reports that led to a government investigation of AOA. Those police officers recently withdrew their reports and sent a letter to the courts praising AOA.
Licadho will appeal the court‘s decision, Pilorge said.
The case began when two mothers alleged that people claiming to work for AOA took their children and put them up for adoption without their permission. Last Sept 3, police raided two AOA houses in Tuol Kok District and found 12 children who were alleged to have been trafficked by AOA officials. One child was quickly hospitalized.
Licadho was granted temporary custody of the other 11 children, but lost custody under a court order and handed the children back to AOA last October. Licadho again won temporary legal custody last December, but the children remained with AOA.
Criminal charges of human trafficking were filed against four AOA officials, but the courts quietly dismissed the charges in March.