Police shut down the Our Home orphanage and school in Phnom Penh on Thursday, two days after child sex abuse allegations led to the arrest of its director—a former head of the anti-pedophile NGO Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), which carried out the investigation.
Hang Vibol was arrested on Tuesday following a monthslong investigation into complaints of child sex abuse, said Lao Lin, chief of the juvenile protection unit at the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking department.
On Thursday, the same joint team of police and Ministry of Social Affairs officials returned to the orphanage and shut it down, packing more than 60 children into vans and trucks bound for shelters run by other NGOs.
“We have been investigating him for a long time,” Mr. Lin said, confirming Tuesday’s arrest. As he spoke inside the orphanage grounds, staff and European volunteers shepherded tearful children with trash bags full of belongings into the vehicles.
Oum Sophannara, director of child welfare at the Social Affairs Ministry, who helped lead the investigation, said authorities felt they had no choice but to close the orphanage.
“Today, we decided to close that center because we…found evidence of child abuse,” he said, adding that a four-month investigation had followed an initial complaint made by “a child’s guardian who claimed to witness him committing child abuse.”
Mr. Sophannara added that 62 children—42 boys and 20 girls—were removed from the orphanage and placed into the care of three child-protection NGOs—Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE), Enfants d’Asie Cambodia (ASPECA) and the M’lup Russey Organization. More than 20 children were also sent back to their families.
APLE released a statement Thursday describing how police had requested that the organization investigate sex abuse claims against Mr. Vibol, who was APLE’s first director when it launched in 2003.
APLE director Samleang Seila said Mr. Vibol’s relationship with the organization was irrelevant, and that he was pursued with the same vigor that his organization brings to all investigations of child abuse, uncovering seven separate allegations.
“Sex offenders can be anyone, but in this case, it is horrifying that a person who worked for more than 20 years to protect children is found to be abusing them,” Mr. Seila said.
“I think this is a clear message that we will investigate anyone, regardless of who they are,” he said, adding that charges of indecent assault with aggravated circumstances had been brought against Mr. Vibol last night.
The charges could not be confirmed through officials.
Mr. Vibol founded Our Home orphanage and school in Meanchey district’s Boeng Tompun commune in 1999, and it continued to operate during his two-year tenure as APLE director. Prior to that, he worked as a juvenile rights officer with local rights group Licadho.
Phann Sophea, a staff member at Our Home, said shutting down the facilities was an injustice and that he believed that his director was innocent.
“Police are accusing him of sexually assaulting children, but nothing like that has ever happened and any time activities like bathing and showers happen, there are supervising staff,” he said.
Mr. Sophea added that he believed that the accusations against Mr. Vibol were false, and made by a person with a vendetta against him.
“The person is a French national, who has had a dispute with our rector before,” he said, declining to name the individual.
Mr. Sophannara at the Social Affairs Ministry confirmed that a French national was behind the complaint, but said he could not provide any more information.
As they helped the children into the vans and trucks Thursday, Spanish, French and Swiss volunteers, as well as staff at the orphanage, said they understood the need to take action against the allegations but were upset by how quickly the children had been removed.
“You can see, they have treated them like animals,” said one enraged senior employee, whose French was translated by a 20-year-old Swiss man who arrived at Our Home five days ago and, like all of his colleagues, declined to be named.
“It is not right to treat them like this, to take them away from their brothers and sisters without telling them where they are going or letting them say goodbye.”
© 2015, Ben Sokhean. All rights reserved.