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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Cable shows cartel’s reach

Prostitutes wait for business outside a brothel in Phnom Penh
Prostitutes wait for business outside a brothel in Phnom Penh. A sex-trafficking network that was operational in Cambodian law enforcement agencies is still under investigation four years after it was discovered. AFP

Cable shows cartel’s reach

A sex-trafficking network that included “high-ranking” government officials and had infiltrated Cambodian law enforcement agencies and NGOs for years worked to cover up Vietnamese sex rings and collect payoffs from illegal prostitution establishments in Phnom Penh.

However, four years after a court finally convicted the police official at the network’s head, the same man still works as a high-ranking official in the Phnom Penh Municipal Police.

The group was first revealed when several of its members were convicted in 2011. But a confidential US State Department cable obtained by the Post under a Freedom of Information Act request and interviews with top anti-trafficking officials and a senior member of the organisation have shed new light on the reach of this cartel.

The network appears to have lost much of its power since its front man at the time, the former chief of Phnom Penh’s anti-human trafficking police, Eam Rattana, was in 2011 sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison for attempting to hire informants in the police and anti-trafficking NGOs. However, that conviction has since failed to stick, and Rattana now works as the deputy chief of staff in the office of the Phnom Penh police commissioner.

According to one senior anti-trafficking police official – who spoke on condition of anonymity, and who was himself once approached to become an informant for Rattana’s group – the network smuggled women and girls from Vietnam to work in front businesses in Phnom Penh, such as coffee shops and video stores, which doubled as brothels and pornographic cinemas.

“A majority of the prostitution was females over the age of 18, but there were also a number of those who were below 18. They are all Vietnamese. The facade of the brothels was coffee shops with DVD films on sale, but the inside was for [screening] porn,” the officer said. “There are some foreign clients who would just call to the girls and then the girls would go to their apartments for the services.”

A raid on one such establishment in 2011 netted a Vietnamese-Cambodian pimp, Sok Heng, while two of his accomplices escaped the Daun Penh district brothel. In his testimony to the court, Heng alleged that the current anti-trafficking police chief, Keo Thea, was also on the take, an allegation Thea denied this week. The senior anti-trafficking officer believes the network has now lost much of its power and been pushed out of top law enforcement positions.

“I believe that network has collapsed and no one in that network will dare to do it again. But I am not sure if there is a new network or not.”

Its members were known to use violence and threats to get what they want, according to interviews with police officers who gave evidence against Rattana.

In fact, the anti-trafficking officer who was once approached by Rattana requested his name be withheld because a member of the network recently threatened his family.

“It was not just me; my whole family was also threatened by them,” he said this week.

However, Rattana chiefly maintained the viability of the network by cultivating a host of informants in both law enforcement and the NGO sector, paying them between $200 and $300 a month to provide information on impending raids.

One of the NGO workers Rattana sought to enlist secretly recorded a 2011 conversation at a “popular Khmer restaurant in Phnom Penh” that was later used as evidence in Rattana’s conviction, a copy of which was obtained by the US Embassy. In the tape Rattana seemed to “attempt to recruit [the NGO worker] into a network of informants tipping off corrupt police and brothel owners to upcoming anti-[trafficking] operations”.

“Colonel Eam indicates that the network includes informants within most anti-[trafficking] NGOs operating in Cambodia as well as high-ranking [government] officials who remained unnamed,” the 2011 cable reads.

Other anti-trafficking police named as alleged members of the network were Police Brigadier General Ten Borany, then-deputy director of the anti-trafficking police, and Police Colonel Prum Vutha, chief of the juvenile protection unit. Both have since died.

However, the cable notes, there was “no concrete evidence against [Borany and Vutha]”, and it is not clear whether the evidence that did exist was pursued.

Although a Supreme Court decision overturned the 2011 verdict against Rattana, the senior anti-trafficking officer confirmed the allegations against him.

“I was told to be an informant within a criminal network protecting those involved in human trafficking and sexual exploitation with payments of up to $200 or $300 per month. But I refused the offer,” he said.

“Besides Ten Borany and Prum Vutha, who each got $300 per month, there are a number of officials who are involved in this, but Rattana did not reveal their names.”

Several anti-trafficking NGOs contacted over the past week said that they were aware of similar allegations, or had knowledge of some of the cartel’s operations, but none knew of the full scope of the operation.

Ruth Elliott, director of local NGO Daughters of Cambodia, said one of the organisation’s senior staff had “heard about this [network] several years ago whilst working for another NGO. We have been aware of the issue ever since Daughters started.”

Seila Samleang, country director of child protection NGO Action Pour les Enfants, said in an email yesterday that he was unaware of such large-scale operations.

Helen Sworn, founder of Chab Dai, said that the group had “been fortunate that we have not experienced this within our organisation but we also know that no organisation or entity is immune to these types of situations”.

All of the NGOs said they employed stringent background checks and monitored staff to ensure they did not become involved in trafficking or prostitution, and it is unknown whether there is any continued influence of the trafficking network in the NGO sector.

Ultimately the sex-trafficking ring was at least partially dismantled.

In 2009 separate allegations against Rattana had already led to his demotion to deputy chief of staff for then-Phnom Penh Police Commissioner Touch Naruth, but no criminal proceedings were initiated.

But on March 27, 2011, Rattana was arrested on suspicion of corruption after allegations surfaced that he had attempted to recruit an investigator from a major anti-trafficking NGO and two senior National Police officers as informants into a “criminal network protecting those involved in human trafficking and sexual exploitation”, according to the 2011 US cable.

Despite substantial evidence that he had offered between $200 and $300 per month to the potential informants, he was released four days later.

Rattana then went into hiding. He never served time, and his conviction in December 2011 was quietly overturned last year in an unannounced ruling by the Supreme Court. He is now working for the police once more and has also become a “businessman”.

The senior anti-trafficking officer who requested anonymity said: “As I understand it, Rattana has gone back to his position as deputy chief of staff for the Phnom Penh Municipal Police Commissioner and keeps working until now.”

Two police officials at the office of the Phnom Penh commissioner yesterday confirmed Rattana was working there “as normal.”

Rattana on Wednesday pleaded his innocence and said that he had moved on from the “unfortunate” episode.

“I do not want to be reminded of the past. It was so unfortunate for me that I was working for so long but was accused like that. I am now a businessman with a business mind. So I do not want to be reminded of it again.”

Mok Chito, deputy supreme commissioner of the National Police, who was sent the evidence against the network in 2011, declined to comment on Rattana’s case.

National Police Commissioner Neth Savoeun said the investigation into Rattana’s case was still ongoing, before hanging up the phone

The US Embassy in its 2011 cable noted that the episode “speaks volumes about the protection individual officers expect from within their own organisation and illustrates how far the [government] and [National Police] have to go in rooting out corruption”.

The embassy at the time of Rattana’s impending trial expressed hope that the move against the trafficking network was a step in the right direction, but in an email this week it highlighted the Supreme Court’s decision as a clear example of the ongoing climate of impunity for trafficking offenders.

“The US Embassy encourages the Royal Government of Cambodia to take all necessary steps to eliminate trafficking-in-persons, including by cracking down on corruption.”

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