Police have strongly denied claims by Somaly Mam, the well-known president of local anti-trafficking organization Afesip, who told a UN meeting in New York this month that eight girls had been killed by the Cambodian army following a raid on her organization’s Phnom Penh center in 2004.
Speaking to the UN’s General Assembly on a panel for activists fighting against human trafficking, Ms. Mam made the stunning claim while describing her work in Cambodia and the dangers her organization has faced in its many years fighting against sex trafficking.
“In 2004, right, my center, 99 girls have been [abducted], the army go to the center and take the girls out and eight of them have been killed,” Ms. Mam said during her presentation on April 3 to an audience of UN member states, international organizations and the media.
“That is a time that I feel that I’m dying,” Ms. Mam continued.
“I hold French passport, but the one who help me the first is State Department, and then after I have UN come to supporting myself and Alyse [president of the women’s rights organization Vital Voices] flew in directly to Cambodia and supporting me,” she added.
Police officials on Thursday denied any knowledge of girls having been killed by members of the military during or after the incident at Ms. Mam’s center in 2004.
“We have never heard about the information that eight girls were killed,” said Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, spokesman for the Interior Ministry. “We completely deny about this.”
“Now, if eight people have been killed, then who killed them? Please give us the information, and we ask Afesip to make a complaint against them, and we will find justice if it is what happened,” he added.
Deputy National Police Chief Lieutenant General Un Sokunthea, who was head of the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking department in 2004, also refuted the claim of killings of girls from the Afesip center.
“This case is not true, because there is no report saying that those women were killed or seriously injured. But I accept that some women who climbed the fence of Afesip to escape received minor injuries as they were climbing,” Lt. Gen. Sokunthea said.
Ms. Mam could not be contacted for comment this week. Ame Merrill, director of development and marketing at the Somaly Mam Foundation, which is headquartered in New York, referred questions to Brandee Barker, who deals with the media for the foundation. Ms. Barker said in an email that she would need to do research on Ms. Mam’s comments at the UN before responding.
What occurred at the Afesip center on Dec. 8, 2004, was strongly disputed by both authorities and Ms. Mam at the time.
A reported 83 women and girls were brought to the Afesip center in Tuol Kok district after the organization and police performed a massive raid on the Chai Hour II Hotel in Phsar Depot III commune, Tuol Kok district, where underage girls were believed to be working in a massage parlor that also provided sex services.
The following day, Afesip said that a number of armed men, who were obviously government officials, colluded with sex traffickers from the hotel and attacked the center, abducting the women and girls taken from the Chai Hour, and eight others not related to the raid.
Reports from the time note that armed men had participated in forcing open the entrance of the Afesip center, but there was no mention of any killings or serious injury. Some of the women taken from the massage parlor to the Afesip center also complained to reporters of not wanting to be “rescued” by the organization, and that they had willingly worked in the massage service to earn a living.
The following month, an inter-ministerial committee set up by the government found that women at the Afesip center had forced open the center’s gate from the inside because they wanted to escape. The committee also claimed that none of the girls inside the hotel were found to be underage. However, reporters covering the story at the time saw several girls at the hotel who were very young teenagers.
The committee’s report made no mention of killings, and news reports on the raid and its aftermath made no mention of any deaths.
Asked about the raid on Afesip’s center in 2004, Lt. Gen. Sopheak said on Thursday: “I do not want to add anything. The case is already closed. We don’t want to dig it up. Chai Hour has been totally closed down.”
Contacted this week, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Phnom Penh said there was no evidence of killings during the Afesip incident, while a US State Department report on human rights in Cambodia in the period from 2004 to 2005 makes no mention of the alleged killings claimed by Ms. Mam.
“OHCHR followed up on this incident back in 2004. The information at the time did not suggest a loss of life during the incident,” said James Heenan, deputy representative of OHCHR in Cambodia.
The State Department report offers a comprehensive overview of the events.
“In December 2004, the [Ministry of Interior’s] Antitrafficking and Juvenile Protection Police raided a notorious Phnom Penh hotel, detaining 8 suspected traffickers and placing 83 women and girls from the hotel under NGO care. A day after the raid, the suspects were released by police, and a mob of family members and other unidentified persons removed or caused to be released 91 women and girls from the NGO shelter, including the 83 women and girls taken from the hotel,” the US State Department human rights report on Cambodia said.
“Authorities did not determine how many of these women and girls were trafficking victims. The government’s inter-ministerial report on the incident was widely criticized by NGOs and the diplomatic community as lacking credibility,” the report added.
Other human rights groups also poured doubt on the claims of eight killings in 2004.
“To my knowledge, and according to everything we’ve documented, there have been no killings in this particular incident,” said Naly Pilorge, director of the local rights group Licadho.
From humble beginnings, Ms. Mam has transformed herself into a global figure in the fight against sex trafficking and has achieved almost celebrity status in the US, where her foundation raises millions each year to fund operations in Cambodia. Ms. Mam counts Spain’s Queen Sofia and Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon among her close supporters.