Even as 14 allegedly trafficked women and girls ended their fourth full day behind bars Sunday, the judge who put them there promised to release the youngest members of the group.
Investigating Judge Buning Bunnary said Sunday she would release the three youngest girls, all in their mid-teens, into the custody of their lawyer early Monday morning. The girls will remain under the care of Afesip, an NGO that helps trafficked and abused women, Afesip Technical Coordinator Sao Chhoeurth said.
While the decision is welcome, it still leaves 11 other victims behind, Sao Chhoeurth said.
Until authorities can establish the women’s identities, they will stay in jail, Buning Bunnary said. That will probably take another month, Sao Chhoeurth said.
Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua said Sunday she is drafting a letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen, asking him to rebuild Cambodia’s anti-trafficking system from the bottom up.
“We have made the commitment that we would protect children, and we haven’t done that,” Mu Sochua said.
Authorities raided a Phnom Penh brothel May 23 and rescued the 14 women and girls, all of whom are believed to have come from Vietnam. But instead of offering aid to the women and girls, authorities charged them with illegal immigration and arrested them Thursday.
“These arrests violate every principle regarding the appropriate treatment of apparent trafficking victims. They should be provided with medical and legal services, counseling, secure shelter and given the opportunity to cooperate in the investigation into the traffickers,” Human Rights Watch senior researcher Sara Colm said in a statement Saturday.
“Although victims of trafficking who are children often need more support and may have been targeted initially because of their vulnerability, their age is ultimately irrelevant. The point is that they are victims, not criminals,” Colm said.
The story exploded last week in the middle of Cambodia’s annual donors’ meeting, humiliating the nation in front of the international community, Mu Sochua said.
“It’s an embarrassment to Cambodia. Many donors brought this up at the…meeting and the message was very clear: We made a mistake,” she said.
Sao Chhoeurth said authorities do not care about cracking down on trafficking. “It’s like there is no trafficking in Cambodia,” he said.
That is not fair, Buning Bunnary said. The court is merely following the letter of the law—just as activists have always demanded, she said.
“Despite the fact they are victims, they must be charged,” the judge said. “The court is still pursuing the sexual trafficking case. We will work hard until we succeed.”
The case should serve as a wake-up call to the government, Mu Sochua said.
“It’s an action that was taken without strong policy. I also take a part of the blame. It’s about time we make this policy clear. It’s okay to admit we made a mistake,” she said.
All 14 women and girls remained in the women’s division at Prey Sar prison Sunday, separated from other inmates, Prey Sar Director Norng Kam Bora said.
Since they have few or no documents, authorities cannot establish their identities and where they come from.
Even if officials do so, they still will have to establish whether sending the victims home puts them back in the arms of the people who sold them in the first place.
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)