Mystery and confusion now surround what was alleged to be an organ-trafficking ring operating out of a military-run hospital in Phnom Penh after officials claimed yesterday that it was simply a Chinese program training Cambodian doctors in transplant techniques.
According to a document from the Municipal Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Office obtained by the Post on Sunday – which officials said yesterday was not meant for the media and “could not be trusted” – eight people, including medical professionals and two generals from the Ministry of Defence, were detained on Saturday on suspicion of trafficking human organs.
The document says the group – all eight of whom have now been released – stood accused of “human trafficking with intent and being the accomplices of human trafficking with intent”, and that a victim had been called to give evidence.
Among those named as suspects were the director of Preah Ket Mealea Hospital, 54-year-old Lieutenant General Ly Sovan, and the hospital’s deputy director, 58-year-old Major General Keo Davuth.
But in a news conference yesterday at the Municipal Anti-Human Trafficking and Juvenile Protection Office, Phnom Penh deputy police chief Prum Sothor said no one had filed an official complaint against the group and those questioned had “voluntarily” agreed to be. Despite their “voluntary” status, members of the group were seen entering the court in handcuffs.
Sothor said a “Facebook complaint” had prompted a two-month-long investigation, culminating in the eight being called in for questioning. He declined to reveal details of what was discovered over the two-month period before questioning because, he said, “it relates to our investigation techniques”.
Sothor said the investigation revealed that “there are kidney transplants [happening at the hospital], but the surgical operation is to develop scientific techniques and was voluntary. [There was] no punishment, forcing or cheating [involved].”
He said Sovan, the hospital’s director, had been working with Chinese doctors since the beginning of the year to develop transplant techniques so that Cambodians in need of the surgery would not have to take costly trips abroad in future.
Sothor said multiple transplants had taken place at the hospital, all of which involved only Vietnamese donors and patients.
A statement released by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court last night reiterated Sothor’s statements.
“The operation is not the crime of human organ [trafficking] as some media reported,” it says, adding that Chinese experts were merely training Cambodian military police doctors.
But Sothor said it was possible that money changed hands between the organ buyer and seller.
“They agreed with each other [to do this]. We have no idea if money was exchanged or how much,” he said, adding that it might have been a case of “you do me a favour, I do you a favour”.
Meas Chan Pisith, deputy prosecutor, and hospital officials could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said that while he could not comment on this specific case, the alleged involvement of high-ranking officials makes legal action more difficult.
“I think that especially in our society, if the rank is higher, the police [are more] careful before making any decision … [and] it is very hard to find witnesses” willing to testify, he said.