Seven Eastern European women were rescued Sunday from a prestigious Phnom Penh hotel after a raid by military police and UN human rights workers who claimed the women were being held prisoner while working in the city’s upscale sex trade.
The manager of the Cangi Best Western Hotel, Richard Chun, was arrested during the raid and given a preliminary charge of human trafficking and imprisoning the women, Municipal Court Prosecutor Ngeth Sarath said.
Speaking to reporters before being led away by police, Chun said he employed the women as “dancers,” not prostitutes. He said he was holding their passports as collateral until the women repaid the money he spent bringing them to Cambodia.
Five Romanians and one Moldovian ranging in age from 19 to 24 were found shortly after noon in two rooms of the plush hotel on Monivong Boulevard.
A seventh woman was brought into protective custody Sunday evening after allegedly spending the morning in Sihanoukville accompanied by So Mara, who heads Cambodia’s National Tourism Authority.
Contacted by telephone Sunday, So Mara at first said he was with a group of US investors looking at developing an airport in Sihanoukville and knew nothing about the Moldavian woman.
When pressed, So Mara admitted the Moldavian woman was in his company.
“The girl was sitting next to me. She was with my friend,” So Mara said, adding that the woman was with one of the US investors. “I am not involved with this,” So Mara said. “I just find the best way to do [investment for Cambodia].”
Awakened by the military police raid on the Phnom Penh hotel, the six startled women turned emotional as they spoke of being held prisoner since they arrived in Cambodia July 26.
The women said they were forced to work as prostitutes every day at a nightclub in the Best Western Tai-Ming Plaza Hotel on Norodom Boulevard.
A manager at the nightclub in the Tai-Ming Plaza said he knew nothing of Eastern European women working as prostitutes at the club.
However, leaflets were on open display Sunday in the lobby of the Cangi Hotel promoting the night club and “Over 80 Vietnamese and 14 Eastern European Hostesses to entertain you nightly.”
Sim Hong, deputy commander of municipal military police, said the operation was launched after the UN Center for Human Rights in Cambodia received a complaint. “All those women were detained and forced to make money [as prostitutes],” he said.
Marlene Alejos of the UN monitoring and protection unit said the UN rights office in Romania notified the UN in Cambodia Saturday after it was contacted about the girls’ plight.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said a second human rights worker, explaining that only those at the receiving end of the human trafficking chain were arrested Sunday.
Those who procured the women and those who facilitated their entry to Cambodia still have to be found, the rights worker said. According to one of the women, an agent in the Romanian capital of Bucharest procured the girls to work in Cambodia.
The seven traveled from Bucharest to Bangkok and then to Phnom Penh, where they were met at the airport by hotel manager Chun, who took their passports, the Moldavian woman said.
They have not seen their passports since their arrival and were only allowed out of their rooms to go to the market—and only when accompanied by a hotel staff member, she said.
Chun denied he kept the women as sex prisoners.
“Who said that? I really want to know,” Chun said. “[The women] are really ungrateful people….They are dancers, OK?”
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)