A monthlong investigation into a small Vietnamese coffee shop in Phnom Penh led to the arrest of four alleged sex workers, a chef and two managers—all Vietnamese nationals—over suspicions the shop was being run as a brothel, an official said on Tuesday.
While two of the arrested women admitted to selling sex at the establishment, the only tangible evidence against the seven were condoms found in an upstairs room, said Chhan Vuth, a bureau chief in the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking department.
Tipped off by an NGO, bureau officials began looking into Mohasambath, a small shop on Preah Sisowath Quay in Daun Penh district’s Srah Chak commune, he said.
At about 9 p.m. on Monday, police officers stormed the premises and arrested Dam Dang Ting, 52, and Vien Dang Vong, 37—both relatives of the establishment’s owner—another man and four women with documents purportedly showing them to be between the ages of 20 and 31, Mr. Vuth said.
“They just opened a coffee shop to hide from the police’s eyes, but they were running a brothel,” he said. “Upstairs, there were bedrooms for having sex.”
He declined to name the NGO that had informed police of the alleged brothel or to detail investigation procedures.
Upon raiding the establishment and questioning the four alleged sex workers, however, Mr. Vuth said anti-human trafficking police had determined that two of the women were underage.
“Our investigation found that there were girls who were minors because they look so small. But in their passports, it says they are 20 already,” he said, adding that he remained confident in his officers’ assessment.
Additionally, he said, police had found sufficient evidence in the establishment to accuse the group of illegal drug use.
“We found some condoms and smoking equipment in the upstairs room,” he said, adding that two of the four women arrested admitted to working as prostitutes and using drugs under police questioning. He said no drugs were found at the scene.
While a three-year-old regulation prohibits officials from using condoms as evidence of commercial sex—in an attempt to promote safe sexual practices and fight HIV and AIDS—anti-human trafficking police have admitted to continuing the practice in the absence of an effective alternative.
Mr. Vuth said officials were still working on identifying and locating the owner. The seven arrested suspects remained at the department’s headquarters as officials prepared a report to submit to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
According to commune chief Chhay Thearith, the coffee shop had been a convincing cover for a brothel.
“If I had known this coffee shop had a brothel parlor inside, I would have reported it to higher level officials to crack down on it,” he said.