Amid recurring rumors of children being kidnapped across the country to have their kidneys harvested and trafficked, a mob of 1,000 people in Kompong Thom province on Saturday allegedly beat up two men wrongly suspected of the crime before proceeding to trash a commune police station, officials said.
An opposition activist was arrested and charged on Sunday for posting about the incident on Facebook, describing “three Vietnamese people suspected of kidnapping children to cut out their kidneys and eyes.”
Police officials in the provinces of Preah Sihanouk, Battambang and Pailin have also reported dealing with “fake news” stories circulating on Facebook about children being kidnapped in recent days.
Late last week, Phnom Penh police even deployed officers to primary and high schools throughout Phnom Penh following multiple reports of kidnappings, Russei Keo district police official Phy Ousaphea said.
Kompong Thom’s Baray district police chief Soung Then said two suspects were beaten both outside and inside a commune police station on Saturday.
The men were in fact Cambodian, and one had a pre-existing arrest warrant issued for theft, not kidnapping, Mr. Then said.
But that did not stop more than 1,000 people from gathering outside the Andoung Pur commune police station where the suspects were being held, many under the mistaken impression the men were wanted for kidnapping children, he said.
Mr. Then claimed the mob had chanted: “Let’s go, let’s go, don’t listen to anyone, don’t be scared of anyone, cut their throats open, kill them, kill them, there is enough evidence.”
The mob destroyed part of the police station and beat the two suspects with sticks and rocks, overwhelming more than 100 provincial, district and commune police and military police officers trying to protect the men, he said.
The suspects were badly beaten and left unconscious, and were later sent to the provincial referral hospital where they are still recovering, he added.
Nay Sineng, the CNRP activist who claimed there had been three Vietnamese suspects, posted on Facebook about the beating, saying: “PS, I am not a racist, but hate the acts they have done to the innocent children.”
The post was quickly shared nearly 60,000 times.
Cheam Channy, a CNRP lawmaker from Kompong Thom province, confirmed Mr. Sineng’s membership in the provincial CNRP working group.
Mr. Sineng was on Sunday charged for “communication or disclosure of false information” that would cause danger to others, deputy provincial police chief Ke Khannara said, a crime punishable by one to two years in prison and a fine of between 2 and 4 million riel, or about $500 and $1,000.
“After he posted it, people were waiting to ask the question throughout the province,” Mr. Khannara said.
“Wherever I drove the car to, and our police were driving motorbikes to, they asked: ‘Is it true that there was a case of kidneys and eyes being cut out?’” he said. People were saying “they wouldn’t let their children go to school.”
The origin of the child-snatching and kidney-trafficking rumors is unclear, but they have been repeated across the provinces and the capital.
Also on Saturday, Pailin police received a report of the kidnapping of a 6-year-old girl near a school in Sala Krao district’s Stung Kach commune, but a provincial police report found there had been no kidnapping, only a girl frightened by a stranger.
The incident “triggered people,” said the report, provided by deputy provincial police chief Iv Kimsean. “Parents and moto-taxi drivers looked for the person who had followed her, but they couldn’t find him.”
Meanwhile, in Preah Sihanouk, Facebook user Pov Vireak Bot posted at 9:06 a.m.: “A person who kidnaps children to cut them open to take the organs to sell was arrested.”
“Please help and immediately share it,” the post said, alongside two photos of a man whose hands were tied behind his back.
Kol Phally, deputy provincial police chief, said there was no kidnapping. The man was a mentally unstable alcoholic, he said.
A similar rumor of a 15-year-old girl being kidnapped in Battambang province on Saturday, which circulated on Facebook, was refuted by Chet Vanny, deputy provincial police chief. An investigation by the provincial police and court found the claims were baseless, Mr. Vanny said.
Chou Bun Eng, an Interior Ministry secretary of state and the vice chair of the national committee to combat human trafficking, said on Sunday that the claims were baseless and were “poisoning the environment of society.”
(Additional reporting by Thim Rachna)