More than 50 women claiming to work as masseuses and karaoke girls, and denying involvement in the sex trade, rallied Saturday outside the US Embassy to protest their detention following a raid of a city hotel last week by anti-trafficking police.
The US State Department issued a statement Friday condemning the alleged forced return of 83 women and girls to the Chai Hour II Hotel by a group of armed men and women who forcefully entered a women’s shelter run by the NGO Afesip. A US embassy spokesperson on Sunday speculated that the participants had been coerced into demonstrating.
“Not only are these girls being victimized, but now they’re also being manipulated,” the embassy spokesperson said, noting that the protesters were delivered to the embassy in a fleet of luxury sports utility vehicles by individuals who did not participate in the demonstration.
The rally, which lasted about
30 minutes, was not authorized by Phnom Penh municipality. However, unlike 35 other demonstrations that have been banned or violently dispersed by police since the Jan 29, 2003 anti-Thai riots, it was not broken up by authorities.
“The rally was not permitted by the municipality,” said Hy Trou, deputy chief of the Interior Ministry’s Central Security Department. “But they did not march across the city. They went by car quietly, rallied to hand over their petition and went back to work.”
Daun Penh district police Deputy Chief Svay Thoun said Sunday he knew nothing about the protest.
Visiting US Congressman Steve Chabot expressed outrage Sunday over the raid.
“One of the things that I did over here was to encourage the prime minister to get to the bottom of the raid on Afesip’s women’s shelter,” Chabot said. “To have men with guns going to go search for women is a real travesty—it’s unacceptable.”
The protesters claimed to be part of a group of 91 women and girls allegedly abducted from the Afesip-run women’s shelter on Wednesday.
Eighty-three women had been brought to the shelter on Tuesday evening following the raid at the Chai Hour II Hotel. Eight other women already living at the shelter were also taken during the Wednesday raid.
The protesters delivered a statement to the embassy saying they had left the Afesip shelter of their own accord and denied any wrongdoing on behalf of their employer.
Afesip legal adviser Aarti Kapoor said Sunday that the NGO had offered—as a humane alternative to a police holding cell—to house the women while the Interior Ministry’s Anti-Trafficking Department conducted its investigation.
“Those who want to leave [the shelter] are free to do so,” Kapoor said, but not until they have been questioned by the authorities about their involvement in criminal activities.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the legal aid NGO Cambodian Defenders Project, said Sunday that if police believe that someone is involved in organized prostitution, they are legally entitled to detain them for up to 48 hours.
“Organized prostitution is illegal,” Sok Sam Oeun said. All of those involved in such activity—whether trafficked or not—fall under the jurisdiction of official police investigations, he added.
Kapoor questioned the identities of those who participated in the Saturday protest, as well as those of 50 other women and girls presented to reporters at the Chai Hour II Hotel on Friday. The women presented stated—in the presence of about five men—that they were not sex workers and had voluntarily left the Afesip shelter.
“How do we know that the girls shown to reporters were the same ones we rescued last week?” Kapoor said. The women and girls were abducted from the shelter before police had time to question them, she added.
In a statement issued Friday, the EU condemned the raid on the shelter and called on the government to bring those responsible to justice.