Lured by promises of high salaries as nightclub dancers and hostesses, Romanian nationals Claudia and Nadia left their country three weeks ago to begin what they thought would be a six-month stint in Asia that came highly recommended by an agent in Bucharest.
But on their first night in Cambodia, the two women found they were also expected to sleep with customers at the nightclub in the Best Western Tai-Ming Plaza Hotel on Norodom Boulevard.
They say their refusal to work as prostitutes for the wealthy Chinese, Thai and Cambodian businessmen and officials who frequent the club began a nightmare of imprisonment, physical abuse and veiled death threats.
It ended Sunday when police and UN human rights workers raided Phnom Penh’s Best Western Cangi Hotel and rescued seven Romanian and Moldovan women aged 19 to 24 years.
Two of the seven, Claudia and Nadia—who did not wish to release their last names—recounted Monday how they were brought to Cambodia with false promises of work and then held hostage and pressured to serve in the capital’s sex industry.
“We didn’t know we were coming to Cambodia….[The agent] told us too many lies [but] we believed her. She told us we would work as dancers and hostesses and that we would have a salary,” Claudia said at Phnom Penh’s UN Center for Human Rights.
The agent, a Romanian woman who goes by the name Norika, advertised for dancers in a Bucharest newspaper. Five other women were chosen along with Claudia, 23, and Nadia, 24. The women said they were promised $600 a month plus commissions on drinks sold to customers.
However, none of them were told they were coming to Cambodia until they arrived in Bangkok’s airport, where Norika and the seven women were met by Richard Chun, who manages the Best Western Cangi Hotel.
Chun admitted Sunday he employed the girls as dancers and confiscated their passports as collateral but denied he imprisoned them or forced them to work as prostitutes.
Chun was detained by military police after Sunday’s raid. He is being questioned for human trafficking and for imprisoning the women, officials said.
Both Claudia and Nadia said they want to see justice done and Chun prosecuted.
On their first night of work at Tai-Ming Plaza, they said they were asked to have sex with customers. They refused, and that’s when the trouble started.
The next day, they said Chun held a meeting at the hotel and told them they must have sex with customers to pay him back for bringing them to Cambodia.
“Of course we protested,” Claudia said. “We wanted to go back [to Romania]. But they told us we had to pay for the [airline] ticket, for everything. And after that, we can go back.”
They said the Romanian agent also admitted at the meeting she had deceived the women about the work they would be doing.
“[Norika] admitted that she lied. We believed her because she said she is a mother….[But] as a mother of girls you cannot do such a thing,” Claudia said.
Intimidation and threats of violence soon followed their refusal to sell their bodies, Nadia said.
“[Chun] said that we can disappear and nobody would know where….And Norika said that she would not do anything to us but someone else will do something,” Claudia said.
Kept as virtual prisoners in two rooms at the hotel on Monivong Boulevard since July 26, the girls telephoned their families after they discovered Chun was planning to sell them to someone else outside Phnom Penh, the women and UN officials said.
Their families in Romania alerted local police, who informed the UN office in Bucharest, which then contacted the UN human rights office in Phnom Penh.
Now waiting there to leave Cambodia, both girls said they still fear Chun, who they said has many powerful friends in Cambodia and Thailand.
Municipal Court Prosecutor Ngeth Sarath said Monday he is waiting on military police to file charges with the court. Military police have 48 hours to investigate the case, Ngeth Sarath said, adding that he cannot file court charges against the hotel manager until the case is passed on by them.
In a move characterized by one human rights worker as a reversal from statements made after the raid, Municipal Military Police Commander Chhin Chanpor said Monday the hotel manager was a victim.
He said the seven women have not paid their fees for staying at the hotel. “Richard Chun is a Canadian citizen who has been an investor in Cambodia for many years.”
Chhin Chanpor confirmed one of the women was in Sihanoukville with So Mara, the director of the National Tourism Authority.
Marlene Alejos, a UN monitor, said the seven will remain here until the legal documents had been passed on to the court.
A key part of the case is convicting the people who trafficked and held the women prisoner, Alejos said. “[Chun] paid for the girls to come here with the intention of using them in prostitution. He also threatened them, took their passports and imprisoned them,” she said, adding that an arrest warrant should be issued for Norika.
Revelations that one of the rescued women was with So Mara could be embarrassing, given his recent stand against sex tourism in Cambodia, a second human rights worker said Sunday.
So Mara recently sent a letter congratulating the World Vision-Cambodia organization for completing research on sex tourism.
“Cambodian tourism is the cultural and natural tourism,” So Mara wrote in the Aug 8 letter, calling on tourist outlets to help combat sex tourism, especially activities involving children.
Both Claudia and Nadia said So Mara brought men to Tai-Ming Plaza almost every night since their arrival last month.
So Mara could not be reached for comment.
Alejos said the UN has asked the government to investigate possible involvement by Cambodian officials in the case.
(Additional reporting Saing Soenthrith)