Two sisters accused of sexually enslaving their then-13-year-old niece and a man accused of paying to have sex with her were sentenced on Tuesday to at least three years in prison as the sisters’ Cham Muslim neighbors rallied to their defense.
Sisters Chea Sros, 33, and Chea Tina, 28, were arrested in August last year after their niece reported them to police and accused them of shackling her to the floor of their home in Phnom Penh’s Russei Keo district and allowing Chhin Chhay Ly, 37, to have sex with her.
The sisters admitted to chaining the girl, but said that Mr. Chhay Ly was engaged to their niece and the $1,000 he provided was intended as a dowry rather than as payment for sex.
“I was concerned that she might escape from the house to go clubbing,” Ms. Tina explained at the time.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Leang Samnath rejected the sisters’ defense, and sentenced them each to three years in prison for unlawful confinement and soliciting child prostitution, municipal court spokesman Sous Vithyarandy said.
Mr. Chhay Ly received a three- and-a-half-year prison sentence for purchasing child prostitution and was ordered to pay the girl 8 million riel, or about $2,000, he said.
Peung Yok Hiep, the sisters’ lawyer, stood by her clients’ claims of innocence.
“It is unfair because they tried to set up their niece in an engagement,” she said. “They did not keep the victim to serve as a prostitute.”
She admitted the pair “made a mistake” in locking up their niece, saying “because even if you were worried about her you should not have used a chain to do so.”
“Chains are only for locking bikes or motorbikes,” she added.
Mr. Chhay Ly declined to comment. Last year, the community’s imam Res Rony defended the relationship, saying that it was not unusual for a Cham girl of the victim’s age to be engaged.
In the days following the sisters’ arrest, more than 100 members of the Cham community in Bei village thumb-printed a petition demanding that the court release them. Neighbors said that the sisters had raised their niece since she was abandoned by her mother.
Neighbors of the aunts remained angry on Tuesday at authorities, the teenager and an NGO they said had pursued the case.
“Even the NGOs and the authorities don’t know the truth about what happened here,” said 53-year-old Oum Chivit, gathering with a handful of other neighbors on a potholed side street near the Tonle Bassac river where the aunts and victim once lived.
Mr. Chivit said the girl’s aunts borrowed his motorbike nightly after their shifts at the garment factory to track down the girl, often finding her with friends.
“Her aunts were worried that she did this all of the time,” he said.
“If they didn’t put chains on her, she would cause them problems,” he added.
“We have no proof, but everyone knew about her bad behavior by her everyday actions.”
Ke Saryfath, the sisters’ 42-year-old aunt and neighbor, said the girl had consented to partnering with Mr. Chhay Ly.
“The aunts of the girl brought her to meet the man so that she would have a partner and not just hang out all day,” Ms. Saryfath said. “She agreed to get engaged and she was sometimes alone with him.”
But “after they got engaged, the girl stole some jewelry from her fiance and gave it to a different man,” she said.
“She’s not a good girl,” said 53-year-old fish farm owner Yamou Soeu, pausing for a cigarette outside his house. “When she visited someone’s house, she always stole something.”
Like other villagers, Mr. Soeu felt that chains were a reasonable way of keeping the girl out of trouble. “Her aunt tied the chains to her whenever they went to work, and when she returned, she let her go.”