Three mothers say they fear their sons are being coerced into fabricating molestation accusations against a man they know as the patron saint of Phnom Penh’s riverside but who police and child-protection activists say is a predator.
The children, ages 5 to 11, are among a group of boys first reported by the Post to have been taken from their families last August during the arrest of an Australian teacher charged with sexual abuse.
The mothers allege the boys were initially taken by police without explanation, and are now being kept as witnesses against the families’ wishes.
“When I went to see my sons at the centre, they said they sleep in the hall without any blanket or mosquito net. They say they are cold and afraid to ask for anything,” Chanthon, one of the mothers, said yesterday.
Despite pleas from the parents and from the children, the shelter won’t let the young boys go, the mothers said.
“They tried to run away,” said Vun, another of the mothers.
Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), a child rights NGO assisting the investigation, confirmed the escape attempt, but said the mothers had pressured the children. “The mothers are still strongly supportive of the suspect. It is part of the grooming techniques of the offenders to build such trust,” said Khoem Vando of APLE.
The mothers – who were all monetarily supported by the suspect – said their sons were told they would be released once the trial is over, inciting fears the boys are under pressure to lie in court in order to go home.
Cambodia does not have a child justice system or guidelines for child witnesses. There is no set age limit on when children can be called to take the stand and face cross-examination in front of the perpetrator.
“I’ve had a 3-year-old victim called to testify,” said Touch Chiva at Legal Aid Cambodia. “She could not speak. They just asked her, ‘Do you know this guy, yes or no?’”
According to Vando at APLE, if children tell police they were harmed, they are “automatically included in the case file and the court has the right to summons them”.
So far, just one of the boys has testified, but the trial is set to continue March 3, and other alleged victims as young as five could be summoned. The boys’ lawyers have asked for up to $10,000 in compensation, but the mothers said they won’t touch a cent.
“I don’t want money from an innocent man; I want my children back,” said Vun.