In a daring Wednesday afternoon raid, an armed group stormed the Phnom Penh women’s shelter of the NGO Afesip and abducted more than 80 recently rescued sex workers, staff members and witnesses said.
The raid followed the largest human-trafficking bust this year, in which 83 women and girls were rescued by anti-trafficking police in conjunction with Afesip and Municipal Court Prosecutor Sien Sok Aun Tuesday evening from the Chai Hour II Hotel in Phsar Depot III commune, Toul Kok district .
Afesip President Somaly Mam said Wednesday afternoon that a group of about 30 men and women, some armed with handguns, surrounded the shelter, assaulted Afesip security guards and forced the sex workers into several luxury Sports Utility Vehicles before driving off.
“The girls were very afraid,” Somaly Mam said.
“They told me the boss of the hotel has a lot of power, and that he will come to take them,” she said.
One of the rescued sex workers, a 16-year-old girl, had a and bruises running down her back, Somaly Mam added.
At the time of the raid, two Interior Ministry policemen where on guard at the Afesip shelter, but were too afraid to intervene, Somaly Mam said.
She also said that eight policemen from the Interior Ministry’s elite Flying Tigers police unit were also assigned to guard the shelter Tuesday evening, but they abandoned their posts shortly after arriving.
Believing that she and her staff were in danger, Somaly Mum appealed to the British and US embassies for protection and expressed doubts regarding the NGO’s ability to continue working in Cambodia.
A US Embassy spokesperson on Wednesday denied evening any knowledge of the organization’s request for protection.
Afesip is now scaling down its work in the aftermath of the incident, Aarti Kapoor, the organization’s legal adviser, said on Wednesday.
Chuon Narin, municipal penal police chief and Hun Song, Tuol Kok district police chief, said on Wednesday evening that they were unaware of the incident and the raid had not been reported to them. Un Sokunthea, chief of the Interior Ministry’s Anti-Trafficking Department, whose officers took part in Tuesday’s raid to release the sex workers, said she too was unaware of the incident, as she had passed the case to the court. Somaly Mam appealed to Prime Minister Hun Sen to provide security for her organization, and to bring those responsible to justice. Thong Kim Heng, bureau chief of the Interior Ministry’s Anti-Trafficking Department, said earlier Wednesday that the investigation of the Chai Hour II Hotel on Street 225 has taken several months.
“We have [been investigating] suspects from this hotel for many months,” Thong Kim Heng said.
Afesip Technical Coordinator Sao Chhoeurth said that about half of the girls rescued were underage, and that some were working to repay debts to the hotel.
During the raid on the hotel seven suspects—five men and two women—were arrested, said Thong Kim Heng. He declined to reveal names, but said that the sex workers had been rounded up from provincial areas.
Somaly Mam alleged that all seven suspects were released hours after their arrest.
A man stationed at the front desk of the Chai Hour II Hotel on Street 225 said Wednesday afternoon that all the girls had been freed. He identified himself as the hotel’s manager, but refused to give his name. He also said that the girls were merely masseuses, and that his hotel is not involved with prostitution.