Official Accused of Extorting Orphan Dancers

After being forced to miss the chance to travel abroad for a traditional Khmer dance performance in November, 10 orphans are still waiting to get their passports back from a Phnom Penh deputy village chief who has allegedly de­manded large fees for their return.

The orphans filed a court complaint at the beginning of No­vem­ber accusing Soam Sophal, de­pu­ty chief of Tonle Bassac commune’s Village 2, of withholding their passports and demanding $100 for each one returned.

Since then, the children, who are dancers with a group organized by the Cambodian Light Association, an NGO working with orphans, missed the opportunity to travel to the US to participate in a traditional Cambodian dance performance because of their missing passports.

Pat Noun, the organization’s director, said Tuesday that after filing a court complaint against Soam Sophal, the organization had not been invited to a hearing or heard back from the court.

“It is a great loss for our country…the opportunity to promote our culture,” he said.

Municipal court Chief Pro­se­cu­tor Ouk Savuth said in November that he had received the complaint and would investigate the matter. But the pro­se­cutor on Tuesday denied receiving a complaint.

The dancers’ passports first came into Soam Sophal’s possession when he traveled to Japan last year with the dance troupe.

Upon returning to Phnom Penh, he offered to keep the documents in a safe place. But when pressed for their return so that the 12- to 15-year-old dancers could make the trip to the US, the deputy village chief demanded the unofficial fees, members of the NGO said.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Soam Sophal promptly hung up.

Pat Noun said the Cambodian Light Association did not have the funds to pay $100 for each of the passports.

“This is the fault of Soam Sophal,” he alleged. “He extorts money, but we don’t have money.”


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