A custody battle is developing between the parents of a 14-year-old girl and child-protection workers who took the girl into care after she was found naked Thursday in the Phnom Penh hotel room of a 73-year-old man.
The girl’s parents have demanded that the NGO, Action Pour Les Enfants, and the human rights NGO Licadho hand their daughter back, and they are strenuously supporting the plea of innocence by the alleged abuser and family benefactor of several years, Ernst Ivankowitsch.
Staff from both organizations have strongly defended their actions and say the girl’s parents knew of their daughter’s abuse at the hands of the Austrian man.
Ivankowitsch was arrested Thursday following a police raid on a hotel on Kampuchea Krom Boulevard, where he was discovered clad only in his underwear in his room with the naked girl.
Questioned later by police—and in the presence of rights workers—the slightly built girl recounted years of sexual abuse by Ivankowitsch that she said first began when she was 9 years old.
But the girl said she did not want to file a complaint against the elderly man because he had lent her family money and he planned to marry her, rights workers said.
On Friday, Ivankowitsch was released from police custody on orders from court officials. The officials said the girl’s parents had declined to file a complaint against Ivankowitsch and had sworn that their daughter had reached the age of consent.
The girl appeared to have “volunteered” to be with Ivankowitsch, Municipal Court Prosecutor Sok Roeun said on Friday.
The girl’s parents also presented a letter from commune officials stating the girl was, in fact, 16-years-old, Sok Roeun said.
“They met each other for a long time and regard each other as girlfriend [and boyfriend]. The parents did not lodge a suit against him,” he said.
Investigating Judge Kim Sophorn also said the girl’s family demanded the Austrian be released and claimed their daughter was 16.
“In the police report she is 14, but the parents and the clarification letter of the commune [official] states she is 16…. Our Khmer law does not ban [sex] at age 16,” said Kim Sophorn, adding the case would remain under investigation.
On Monday, the girl’s parents visited the offices of Licadho, the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center and Action Pour Les Enfants demanding their daughter be handed back, staff said.
Hang Vibol, director of Action Pour Les Enfants, said on Monday the girl was in safe hands with a children’s organization.
“When police arrived at [Ivankowitsch’s] room, he told police that the girl was his wife… He also said there was no problem because her parents already knew this,” Hang Vibol alleged.
“We absolutely cannot let [the girl] go because she will be influenced to change her confession,” said Hang Vibol.
On Sunday, the girl’s father Bun Man, 32, and mother Pheung Mach, 32, said that their daughter was 14-years-old and had been accompanying the Austrian—as did their other young daughters and those of neighbors—to his hotel room for the past few years.
“I was very confused and I just told [the court official] 16 because I wanted him released,” Pheung Mach said at her home, which was paid for by Ivankowitsch, in Meanchey district.
“I didn’t want to complain because he gave a lot of money and I asked my daughter and she said she had never been raped,” Pheung Mach said.
“This organization has defamed my daughter,” said Bun Man, who claimed the Ivankowitsch was like a grandfather to his female children.
“Once or twice a month he would bring the kids out,” said Bun Man. “He brought them to his room and ask them to take a shower and gave them food and then told them to sleep. When they woke up he gave them food again,” Bun Man said.
Both parents said they did not want the allegations of abuse investigated. They also did not want doctors to conduct a medical check on their daughter.
“I don’t want [an investigation]. I’m afraid [my daughter] will lose time from her studies and it will destroy my business,” said Bun Man, who earns money collecting morning glory from a nearby pond.
Licadho Director Naly Pilorge on Monday blasted a “system” that “failed this young victim on so many levels.”
The police and courts have released the suspect while the victim’s family helped in his release and they are now demanding their daughter returned,” Naly Pilorge claimed.
“What can be said of a society that fails to protect it’s own children?” she asked.
Ly Rasy, chief of the minor crime department at the Municipal Police, said on Monday that Ivankowitsch was sent to the court and the court decided to release him.
“We do not know where he is [now],” Ly Rasy said.