Human rights workers said they were surprised by the release Tuesday of four people who had been arrested one day earlier for allegedly trafficking children in a suspected black market adoption scam.
The four were arrested in Tuol Kok district late Monday afternoon in a raid by district police, officials from the Ministry of the Interior’s anti-trafficking unit and members of the human rights watchdog group Licadho. The team rescued 10 infants and two children in the raid, according to police officials and Licadho.
In less than 24 hours, however, Tuol Kok district police had set the four suspects free.
Municipal officials and human rights workers agreed Tuesday that the arrests were sparked by a single woman’s attempt to get her two children back from the four people who were arrested. However, the details of the mother’s story and the nature of the group that was keeping her children remain unclear.
Sok Roeun, deputy prosecutor of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, ordered the release of the four who were arrested Monday. He said the organization for which the four worked, an orphanage called the Asian Children’s Center, turned up with proper documentation for custody of the children, even though none of the four produced such documentation at the time of their arrest.
In his eyes, this is the story of a desperate mother unable to care for her children, who gave them over to an orphanage, and then changed her mind.
“The mother was HIV positive and she felt hopeless, so she turned her two children into the [Asian Children’s Center] to feed and take care of them. The center gave her [600,000 riel—about $150] as charity; it was not a purchase of the kids,” he said.
“Later on, the woman came back and asked for her kids back from the center. The center refused to give her the two children because the kids would have a bad future [if they stayed with her], since she is HIV positive.”
Kim Sen, a field worker with Licadho, said he understands the woman’s story differently and he is still suspicious of the group that was arrested.
He said that the woman, Deonj Cheap, was approached by an “organization” that offered to take her children in for blood tests to see if they were HIV positive.
If the children came up HIV negative, the organization said they would give her 50,000 riel (about $12.50) per child, Kim Sen said.
According to Kim Sem, the mother was later approached by people from the organization who said: “We want to take your babies to give to rich people. These rich people can give them a good future, maybe take them to the United States.”
“But [Deonj Cheap] refused,” Kim Sen said.
The organization offered her a “contribution” of 600,000 riel, which she accepted, but she never agreed to give up her children, according to Kim Sen.
When her children disappeared, Deonj Cheap went to the organization and said: “I won’t take this money. I’d like to have my babies back,” Kim Sen said.
They refused to return her children, Kim Sen said, so Deonj Cheap went to Maryknoll, a local NGO. Licadho became involved, and the arrests were set in motion.
Both Kim Sen and Kek Galabru, founder of Licadho, were surprised by the release of the four alleged traffickers, especially since they could not produce proper documentation for the children at the time of their arrest.
In an interview with Agence France-Presse, Kek Galabru said: “I don’t know what else to say. If the police and court prosecutors say this, then we have to accept it.
“But we have a feeling that there is something fishy with this.”