Three organizations argued in Phnom Penh Municipal Court Tuesday over the fate of 12 children—some only weeks old—who were taken from the Asian Orphans Association on Sept 3.
Representatives from the Ministry of Social Affairs, the AOA and the human rights group Licadho brought their rival claims for legal guardianship of the 10 infants and two children before Soar Sokphori, municipal court president, in a closed hearing.
All three groups have filed requests in the past month for legal guardianship, and Soar Sokphori expects to decide the issue on Oct 15.
“We would like guardianship because the AOA is under suspicion of trafficking babies,” Naly Pilorge of Licadho said outside the courtroom. “We’d like a criminal investigation to be done, and we’d like to work with the Ministry of Social Affairs to seek out any parents who are looking for infants.”
The babies were taken from AOA during a Sept 3 raid. Authorities suspected that the babies might be victims of trafficking. They have been under the temporary care of Licadho and an unidentified international NGO that cares for children.
Chhit Boravuth, the AOA’s lawyer, said the agency has a memorandum of understanding with the Ministry of Social Affairs that he says ensures the legality of the orphanage’s actions.
“I request return of the children because the AOA is legal. I think Licadho was only entrusted to take care of the children temporarily,” he said.
He also referred to a Sept 4 decision by Deputy City Prosecutor Sok Roeun not to charge anyone at the agency with trafficking after the raid. “I don’t know why Licadho does not return the children to the AOA,” Chhit Boravuth said. “They are opposing a decision of the court. Licadho is going too far in this case.”
Chhit Boravuth vowed to sue Licadho if the agency is found not guilty.
After a directive from Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Council of Ministers on Sept 12 ordered an investigation of the agency be reopened, and stipulated that Licadho should care for the children with the cooperation of the Ministry of Social Affairs during the investigation.
But Ten Borany, head of the Ministry of Interior’s anti-trafficking unit, said he hasn’t yet received such an order, and that the Ministry of Social Affairs is also requesting custody of the children. Chim Sunheng, the Ministry of Social Affairs’ representative at the hearing and head of its adoption bureau, said he could not comment on the case.
Pilorge said Licadho is considering using DNA testing to check the claims of two women who have already identified infants in the group as their own.
According to Licadho, the women tell similar stories of having been approached by an organization while they were pregnant and being promised medical and financial assistance once their babies were born. The women said they gave their newborns to the organization for medical exams, only to have the babies taken away from them.
AOA president Serey Puth has said AOA is a humanitarian organization that cares for children abandoned in hospitals and orphans of mothers who have died from AIDS.