Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Heng Pov briefly detained eight members of staff from Chhai Hour II Hotel for questioning Monday morning in relation to a Dec 8 attack on an Afesip women’s shelter when 91 women and girls were removed from the NGO’s care.
However, the city’s police chief released the eight later in the day saying there was not enough evidence to hold them.
Pao Ly, 33, the hotel’s owner; Sam Samleng, 55, the general manager; Mong Disopheak, 29, karaoke manager; Ith Channeang, 29, cashier; Uk Socheat, 36, massage cashier; Teap Sotheary, 41, massage manager; Kim Heng, 62, hotel assistant; and Lim Chou, 40, who greeted clients requiring massage, were brought to Municipal Police headquarters at 9:30 am, where some were questioned in front of reporters.
Heng Pov said Monday morning that he was planning to send the eight men and women to Phnom Penh Municipal Court later in the day.
But by Monday afternoon the eight were released and Heng Pov appealed to more senior
government officials to handle the case, saying he was no longer in a position to be involved.
“I have no way to charge them,” he said, citing a lack of evidence. “This case is very complicated.”
The eight were initially arrested on Dec 7 following a raid by the anti-trafficking police in conjunction with a court official and anti-trafficking NGO Afesip, only to be quickly released again on Dec 8, the suspects said Monday.
Interior Ministry and court officials said at the time that they were released on the orders of an unnamed official.
At Municipal Police headquarters, Pao Ly denied participating in the attack on the Afesip shelter and added that he had heard from his staff that the women broke out of the NGO compound of their own accord.
He said he had not paid police to ensure his subsequent release on Dec 8, which he attributed to a lack of police evidence against him. Three independent witnesses to the attack reported earlier this month that they saw about 30 men kick, push and smash the gate of Afesip with rocks at about 11 am, before some of the women and girls were ushered into sport utility vehicles, and others fled on motorbike taxis.
An Interior Ministry anti-trafficking police probe leading up to the hotel raid claimed that about 250 women and girls were employed at the hotel as sex workers.
About 100 of them were confined inside the hotel, according to a copy of the anti-trafficking department’s request to raid the hotel, which was signed by National Police Commissioner Hok Lundy.
The hotel’s general manager, Sam Samleng, on Monday denied the allegations in the police report, adding that a lawsuit filed against Afesip on behalf of the 83 women and girls for illegal detention and defamation still stands.
Heng Pov also said police have found no evidence of anyone breaking down Afesip’s gate.
“According to the inter-ministerial investigation, the girls wanted to break out by themselves,” Heng Pov said, although he added that he would investigate further.
Heng Pov also disputed earlier reports of a man seen outside the shelter at the time of the raid whom Afesip said was carrying a gun. Heng Pov said the man was in fact a photographer with local newspaper Rasmei Kampuchea, with a camera attached to his belt.
Though a military police official was present during the incident, the man has told police he is married to one of the females taken from the hotel during the raid, Heng Pov said.
The officer has accused Afesip of falsely identifying his wife as a prostitute, Heng Pov added.
Contacted Monday, Kek Galabru, founder of the rights group Licadho, said she would like police to clarify why they have released the eight men and women on two occasions.
Mu Sochua, former minister of women’s affairs, called for the Chhai Hour II Hotel to be closed during the inter-ministerial investigation.
Pierre Legros, Afesip director, declined comment until the results of the inter-ministerial investigation are officially released.
(Additional reporting by Prak Chan Thul and William Shaw)