After a two-month investigation, police were confident enough to arrest and interrogate nine people on Saturday over an alleged kidney trafficking ring at the state-run Preah Ket Mealea military hospital, including its director Ly Sovann, a lieutenant general in the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF).
But in an inexplicable about-face Monday, Prum Santhor, deputy Phnom Penh police chief in charge of anti-human trafficking, said all of his department’s work was a “big mistake.”
Mr. Santhor said that allegations that the hospital was being used as a conduit to remove organs from patients and sell them for tens of thousands of dollars to recipients, a blatant violation of the law, were entirely inaccurate.
“[The kidney transplants are] legal because they [the organ donors] volunteer,” Mr. Santhor said after reading a prepared statement to reporters in his office at the municipal police commissariat. “No one forces them to do it; there is nothing tricky going on and no cheating going on.”
According to Cambodia’s human trafficking laws, it is “irrelevant” if organ donors consent to surgery if they are enticed to do so. Removal of a person’s organ through “enticement” is punishable by seven to 15 years in jail.
Mr. Santhor admitted Monday that he remains unclear on exactly what transactions take place before kidney transplant operations at the military hospital.
“We have no idea if they exchange money or how much money is exchanged,” he said, regarding donors and recipients. “It may be, ‘You do me a favor, I’ll do you a favor.’”
After police rounded up and questioned the nine people on Saturday—eight alleged suspects and one patient—Defense Minister Tea Banh on Sunday blasted their work as incompetent and accused them of making a massive mistake.
Seven people, including Vietnamese patients and a Chinese professor who was training doctors at the hospital, were questioned at Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday and released afterward.
Absent from the court questioning were Lt. Gen. Sovann and the deputy director of the hospital, Major General Keo Davuth.
Lt. Gen. Sovann declined to comment when contacted Monday.
Municipal court deputy prosecutor Meas Chanpiseth refused to discuss why the generals were not questioned, why all suspects identified by police were released, or any other details of the case.
General Banh maintained Monday that the Chinese professor had been training Cambodian doctors in kidney transplant surgery and that Vietnamese patients are coming to Cambodia to take advantage of the military hospital’s service.
“This is not kidney trafficking; it is training of kidney operations and the patients agreed to donate,” Gen. Banh said. “They agreed with each other because they just volunteer for their relatives.”
Gen. Banh reiterated that the initial claims by police were unfounded.
“Accusations of kidney trafficking are seriously damaging,” he said.
Mr. Santhor struggled to explain why his case had suddenly fallen apart, ultimately admitting that he simply trusted the testimony of Lt. Gen. Sovann, Maj. Gen. Davuth and Gen. Banh.
“After we interviewed the director and deputy director, they provided documents about the kidney operations,” he said, noting that the documents mentioned the operations are “voluntary.”
“It just says voluntary,” he added, explaining there is no mention of costs in the document. “Even when we ask the directors, they don’t know if they [the organ donors] get money.”
According to Mr. Santhor, his team began investigating the hospital in June after reading a Facebook post that claimed it was trafficking organs.
Mr. Santhor refused to discuss the Facebook post or what his officers discovered during their two-month investigation to propel them to arrest and question the eight suspects.
“I cannot tell you more about the investigation,” he said. “This relates to investigative techniques so I cannot tell you otherwise we cannot use them next time.”
Mr. Santhor said the kidney transplant operation has been available at the hospital since the beginning of 2014, and that just two such surgeries have taken place so far. But he also said during the same interview that 10 pairs of Vietnamese patients had undergone kidney transplant surgery at the hospital.
Despite the contradiction and a lack of details, Mr. Santhor maintained that his officers had made a mistake.
“After we investigated, we found that the purpose is humanitarian and to develop technology to help the poor people,” he said.