US Demotes Cambodia on Trafficking List

The US State Department has downgraded Cambodia from tier two to tier three on its annual glo­bal anti-trafficking watchdog list, opening the door to the possibility of sanctions, the department’s Of­fice to Monitor and Com­­­bat Traf­ficking in Persons an­­nounced Fri­day. The office cited the government’s handling of the Afesip case, and a perception that senior government officials are colluding with traffickers and not being pun­ished, as reasons for the move. “The government of Cambodia does not fully comply with the min­imum standards for the elimination of trafficking and is not making significant efforts to do so,” the Office to Monitor and Com­­­­­­­bat Trafficking in Persons said in the report. “The government must take ag­­gressive measures to prosecute and convict traffickers and public of­ficials found to be in­volved in trafficking, and confront corruption in its judicial system that hampers the prosecution of traffickers,” a US Embassy official said Sunday. The government’s response to the raid on Afesip’s women’s shelter in Phnom Penh “was unsatisfactory,” the US report stated, accusing the government of “fail[ing] to take effective action to ensure that those responsible for the raid…were held accountable and brought to justice.” On Dec 7, police and the anti-trafficking NGO Afesip conducted a raid on the Chai Hour II Hotel, and took 87 women and girls to safety. On Dec 8, 91 women and girls were removed from the NGO’s care after a group of some 30 men forced open the gate. In the ensuing outrage the US urged the government to rescue the abductees on Dec 10, the same day that the hotel announced that most of the females were back at work at the hotel. Eight suspects from the hotel were arrested in connection with the raid, but were released shortly after on the orders of an unidentified senior government official. The females were never returned to the women’s shelter. According to the US trafficking report, sanctions could be applied by Oct 1 and could include the withholding of non-humanitarian and non-trade related assistance to Cambodia. The US could also oppose Cambodia receiving assistance from the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Sanctions could be avoided if Cambodia is found to have come into compliance with minimum standards for combating trafficking, or is making significant efforts to do so. Contacted Sunday, Om Yentieng, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s adviser, said downgrading Cambodia over the Afesip case “is like evaluating a forest based on one tree.” Sanctions would be an injustice, he added. “We have measures to work for human rights, to fight human trafficking,” he said. “We do not work just to satisfy any one….We have never worked to avoid sanctions,” he added. “We have worked for a clean society,” he said. Though allegations of underage prostitution and confinement of women prompted the police raid in December, it was business as usual at the Chai Hour II hotel on Sunday afternoon as several women in white petticoats sat waiting for customers behind a large glass screen. The hotel provides karaoke and massage services. Kim Song, who identifies himself as the hotel’s accountant, said business at the hotel is good. He said he was unaware of the country’s downgrading in the global trafficking report. “I would like to deny all accusations that my place keeps girls to work as prostitutes,” he said. “We don’t know why they accuse us, we have all the licenses.” The government’s handling of the case suggests that Prime Minister Hun Sen is losing control of officials beneath him, Mu Sochua, opposition party member and former minister of women’s affairs, said Sunday. “It’s like a spider web. I think he’s losing control of which [strand] goes where,” Mu Sochua said. Mitigating the damage to Cambodia’s international reputation will be an “immense” challenge, Mu Sochua said. “Because of the mistakes of a few high ranking officials…Cambodia has to pay a very high price,” she said. “If it leads to sanctions, these officials should be revealed.” Aarti Kapoor, legal adviser to Afesip, said the downgrading was expected. “It’s appropriate for the US to say something that no one else dares say,” she said. “People can’t talk about corruption and complicity, and it’s a very serious issue,” she said.

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