The Court of Appeals Thursday awarded a human rights organization temporary custody of 12 children who authorities allege are the victims of a human trafficking scam targeting couples looking to adopt Cambodian orphans.
The children, mostly infants, were ordered removed from the Asian Orphans Association and sent to Licadho, an NGO that represents at least two women who alleged their children were taken from them and labeled “orphans” by people working for AOA.
Licadho will retain custody until a criminal investigation of four people affiliated with AOA is complete, the three-judge panel at the appeals court ruled.
“The court announced it as an emergency case which needs no thorough investigation to protect the interests of the children,” Appeals Court Judge Thou Mony said, speaking for the panel of himself and Judges Om Sarith and Pol Neang.
“Licadho welcomes the Court of Appeal’s decision and we believe it is necessary to safeguard the welfare and rights of these infants and young children,” Licadho President Kek Galabru said in a statement.
The children will be moved from the orphanage as soon as today to an undisclosed location, Kek Galabru said.
The children will be transferred to an international NGO on Jan 3, Licadho Acting Director Naly Pilorge said. She declined to name the NGO out of concern for the children.
The decision appeared to catch AOA officials by surprise.
Serey Puth, president of the AOA, said the court did not inform him about the decision.
“I think that Licadho cannot challenge me because they don’t have any proof. I have all the proof,” he said.
He referred further questions to his lawyer, Chhit Boravuth. When contacted, Chhit Boravuth said he didn’t know anything about the court decision, and wondered if Licadho was lying when it sent a news release on Thursday announcing the decision.
The children were discovered Sept 3 in two AOA houses in the Tuol Kok District during a police raid that was launched after two mothers complained that their children had been taken from them by people claiming to work for AOA.
Licadho was granted temporary custody of the children the same day as the raid, but lost custody on Oct 15 when Phnom Penh Municipal Court President So Sophearik issued an emergency interim order to return the children to AOA custody.
The following day, four people affiliated with the orphanage were formally charged with human trafficking offenses.
Thursday’s decision upheld an appeal filed by Licadho for the children’s return to the rights organization. In their arguments, Licadho officials said the AOA was unfit to care for the children during the criminal investigation.
The group of children includes a 9-year-old girl who told investigators she was not allowed to go to school while she was in the care of the AOA and had been put to work as a nanny for the other children.
Another child required hospital care after she was seized by the police, according to Licadho staff.