Responding to international calls for action, the Interior Ministry issued a statement dated Sunday disputing claims by the NGO Afesip that their women’s shelter was stormed by armed raiders on Wednesday.
The Interior Ministry claimed instead that the 91 women and girls had broken out of the Afesip facility and fled on their own accord after relatives surrounded the shelter and demanded their release.
This action “subsequently result[ed in a] commotion and gate breaking for their escape. So there was no abduction of those women by armed assailants,” according to the Interior Ministry, which cited the names of two Afesip employees as corroborating the ministry’s version of events.
The Interior Ministry also announced the establishment of an inter-ministerial committee to further investigate the incident and promised “to search for the truth and nothing but the truth.”
In a statement issued from Bangkok, where Afesip staff were preparing a news conference for international media today, Afesip Director Pierre Legros said the ministry statement was made without proper investigation and was seriously biased in the interpretation of facts.
While admitting that the earlier reports by Afesip staff that the raiders were armed with guns could not be verified, the Afesip statement noted that “eyewitnesses claim the attackers were wearing military and bodyguard uniforms.”
The Interior Ministry’s Anti-Trafficking Department “made an explicit finding of…commercial sexual exploitation of children on the premises of the Chai Hour II Hotel,” Afesip stated. It added: “nothing is mentioned regarding this fact in the [ministry] statement.”
The leader of the alleged raid on the shelter was identified as a man named “Long,” whom the Afesip statement identified as one of the eight suspects arrested by police at the hotel but released shortly after.
“Afesip firmly accuses these attackers of kidnapping children for sexual exploitation,” the statement added.
Legros also noted that no identification number, name or signature appeared at the bottom of the Interior Ministry statement. “This brings the validity of the document into question and further highlights the high probability that no person wants to be held accountable.”
Interviewed on Monday, an Afesip staff member who witnessed the raid also refuted details in the Interior Ministry statement.
The staff member confirmed the presence of at least one armed man standing outside the shelter—a handgun was holstered to his waist—before the incident and said that several men in the raiding party had yelled threats over the wall.
“They were shouting, ‘We will kill everyone from Afesip,’” said the staff member who spoke on strict condition of anonymity due to security concerns.
The staff member also claimed to have seen several luxury sports utility vehicles affixed with military number plates driving the women and girls away after the alleged raid.
A US Embassy spokesperson said Monday that the embassy had not changed its stance following the release of the Interior Ministry statement, and continued to urge for a clear accounting and investigation into the alleged raid and police complicity in the release of the eight suspects.
Calls to Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak went unanswered Monday. Bureau Chief for the Interior Ministry’s Anti-Trafficking Department Kim Heng refused to comment, saying he was fed up with the issue.
“I am sorry about this,” he said.
At Afesip’s Phnom Penh headquarters, staff members called to foreign embassies and the UN center for human rights on Monday to help bolster their personal security.
“We are extremely scared,” said a member of Afesip’s managerial team. “Suspicious people are driving past [our headquarters] all day…but no one will help us.”
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy called the Interior Ministry statement a travesty, and called for all those within the current government who want reform to mobilize around the issue and work together.
“Where is the rule of law?” Sam Rainsy said. “Where are we going? The government makes many statements about fighting human-trafficking, but when there is trouble, the people expected to give support disappear and back away,” he said.
“I open the headquarters of the Sam Rainsy Party to anyone who feels they are threatened,” he said. “We do not have armed guards but we will guarantee their safety by all our means.”
Pao Ly, who identified himself by telephone as a son of the owner of the Chai Hour II Hotel, denied Monday that illegal activities were taking place in the hotel. Pao Ly identified his father by the name “Long.”
“Our hotel has a license for running business as massage and beer garden and karaoke, and every month we have paid the municipal tax department and the annual tax is paid. In our business there is no wrongdoing,” he said.
“We want to meet Afesip representatives face-to-face and solve this problem with both sides peacefully,” he added.
Afesip’s Legros said there was no hope for reconciliation. “This is not like a conflict between Khmers when they give money and it’s all over. I have nothing to say to these people,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)