Flouting Orders, Police Use Condoms as Evidence

According to the government, condoms cannot be used in court as evidence of an illegal sexual transaction, as it may discourage their use and contribute to the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

But some among the country’s police force and prosecutors don’t seem to care.

Twice this week, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has heard cases involving the procurement of prostitution in which used condoms have been presented as proof that sexual exchanges took place.

In court on Tuesday, the presiding judge and deputy prosecutor both noted the discovery of condoms in the case against massage parlor owner Try Tech.

“Police found the condoms and other things as evidence to charge you,” said Presiding Judge Chuon Sokreasei. Deputy prosecutor Chet Khemara added that condoms were found in each room within the “168” massage parlor.

On Wednesday, another massage parlor owner, Heng Sothea, was sentenced to two years in prison for procuring prostitution.

Presiding Judge Chea Sokheang, outlining the evidence in the case, said police found many condoms at Ms. Sothea’s “999” massage parlor in Phnom Penh, along with a notebook and two mobile phones.

Prime Minister Hun Sen issued the “100 Percent Condom Use Policy” in 1999—around the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Cambodia—to fight against the deadly disease, partly by allowing brothels to stock condoms without fear of arrest or prosecution.

The initiative worked. Condom use rose—particularly among sex workers and their clients, the most at-risk population—and rates of HIV/AIDS steadily declined.

But since the government passed the 2008 Law on Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation and police began shuttering brothels, the sex industry has migrated underground into ostensibly legitimate establishments such as massage parlors and karaoke venues.

And in an effort to prove that sex is on offer at these locales, police are once again turning to condoms as evidence.

“Condoms are evidence that they have had sex for money,” Lieutenant Colonel Keo Thea, the chief of the Phnom Penh anti-human trafficking police, said Wednesday.

Mr. Thea said condom use inside massage parlors and karaoke venues, where the sex industry often operates, is a double-edged sword.

“For example, people commonly use a knife for cutting vegetables, but when someone uses that knife to stab and kill somebody it becomes evidence of a crime,” he said. “Condoms protect from viruses. It is right. But they use the condom to have sex for money.”

The National Aids Authority noted the effectiveness of the condom-use policy in a 2010 report in which it urged the government to update the directive to adapt to a transformed sex industry.

“There is an urgent need to develop new approaches on the 100 percent [condom use policy],” the report says. “These approaches should expand the implementation of the policy to new environments where sex work is taking place…[and] ensure compliance among establishment owners and law enforcement officials.”

The report also notes that after the 2008 human trafficking law came into effect, the number of sex workers in brothels decreased from 6,000 in 2006 to 1,775 in 2009, while non-brothel based sex workers rose from 26,000 in 2007 to 32,418 in 2009.

Tim Vora, executive director of the HIV/AIDS Coordinating Committee, a network of international and local NGOs, said the Interior Ministry issued a directive in 2011 saying that condoms in entertainment establishments should only be used as evidence in cases of rape.

“We’ve been trying to educate police. Condoms are just one piece of evidence,” Mr. Vora said. “I think it has gotten better, but it’s still a problem. The police need to find other pieces of evidence.”

Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said he was “not clear” on the issue and declined to comment on why police are continuing to collect condoms as evidence.

Nou Sovann, the HIV program manager at Population Services Khmer, an NGO that advocates for HIV/AIDS prevention, said court cases like the ones this week strike fear into entertainment establishments and workers.

“Now they’re afraid to stock condoms or use them,” he said.

“Instead of using condoms as evidence, police should be encouraging their use.”

(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)

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