Fourteen young women arrested on immigration charges shortly after they were rescued in a series of Svay Pak brothel raids in May will face trial Aug 5, court officials and observers said Tuesday. Court officials also said the girls most likely will have to appear as witnesses in a separate trafficking hearing.
Meanwhile, although some arrests have been made, the brothel owners remain free, and officials say they are short on leads.
The case highlights the difficulties that typify the overlapping issues of sex trafficking and illegal immigration, with two separate investigations under way by two different judges operating under separate laws.
Eleven of the girls remain in Prey Sar prison. Three others were released after Phnom Penh Investigating Judge Buning Bunnary determined they were under the age of 18. Those three are currently under the supervision of Afesip, the NGO that participated in the raids that freed them.
At the time of the arrests Buning Bunnary, who is handling the trafficking investigation, said girls determined to be underage could be detained only for a maximum of one month before a trial. The girls were arrested June 20.
But Phnom Penh Municipal Court Chief Judge Nop Sophon, who is handling the immigration case, said that based on their interviews, “the girls are not underage, so by law we can detain them for longer than one month.”
The girls face between three to six months in jail and will be sent back to Vietnam, Nop Sophon said. Further confusing the case, at the time of the arrest, Afesip’s records of interviews with the girls indicate that at least six of the 14 girls claimed they were younger than 18.
Nop Sophon agreed that it has been difficult to determine the ages and histories of the young women.
“It is complicated,” he said. “Some of the girls have been in Cambodia since they were very young…and they know nothing.”
Sao Chhoeurth, technical coordinator for Afesip, suggested that “the girls lied about their real age in order to protect the brothel owner and their parents, who are still in contact with the ringleader who trafficked them here.”
Buning Bunnary said the trafficking investigation continues and she implored the police to “find more suspects and brothel owners, especially their personal backgrounds, [such as] names, ages, and where they are. The police have not done this.”
Right now, she added, she only has interviews with the girls to go on and the case has stalled.
Chung Eav Heng, the lawyer for the 11 incarcerated women, said, “If the court detains my clients more than a month I will write a letter [to the court] appealing for their release. They have not committed serious crime; they have committed minor crime so the judge cannot detain them.”
He said police and court officials have been “very slow” in their trafficking investigation.
Ministry of Interior anti-sex crimes officer Phuong Sophy confirmed that four women were arrested during the May raids, but said they were only cooks and cleaners in the brothels rather than the owners. “They stay in the houses, maybe they are accomplices,” he said.