Elite police units simultaneously descended on two guesthouses across the river from Phnom Penh yesterday. Thirteen victims, mostly teenagers, were pulled from the houses where they had been forced to provide sexual services, according to police. The raids coincide with a recent NGO report that calls into question the government’s enforcement efforts regarding human trafficking.
The couple who ran one of the Takhmao City guesthouses in Kandal, Sin Sideth, 56, and his wife, Touch Vanny, 54, as well as the owner of another guesthouse and alleged brothel in the same town, Hang “Srey” Mao, 38, were all arrested and preliminarily charged with “procurement” of prostitution, said Major Sok Sareth, provincial director of the anti-human trafficking and juvenile protection unit.
The maximum penalty for their charge is 10 to 15 years' imprisonment, but they could have also faced an additional dozen or more charges as outlined in a new report that examines the legal code for human trafficking.
Hong Kong-based NGO Liberty Asia, using generic case studies of human trafficking, assembled a legal playbook of the possible prosecutable crimes in the route from source to destination in six Asian countries, including Cambodia.
The Kingdom’s legal framework has plenty of existing codes to hold pimps, brokers and smugglers accountable, but, the report found “law enforcement efforts are not commensurate with the scale of the problem in Cambodia”.
The conclusion corroborates what other studies have for years maintained: raids like yesterday’s are a rare show of force by a unit long criticised for making lackluster progress against the country’s human-trafficking problem.
From April 2013 to April 2014, Cambodia prosecuted just 10 sex-trafficking offenders and eight labour-trafficking suspects, according to the most recent Trafficking in Persons report.
But Cambodia is hardly alone in its struggle to persecute traffickers; internationally, only a fraction of trafficking cases come to trial, let alone result in a conviction.
Last year, fewer than 10,000 cases of trafficking were prosecuted internationally with about half resulting in convictions, according to Archana Kotecha, head legal adviser at Liberty Asia.
“Trafficking is often a misdiagnosed legal problem,” she said. “It’s really an ensemble of crimes.”
What may look to police like a rape at the time of intervention, may involve a more complicated web of violations that implicate trafficking, such as whether bribery, deceit, corruption or coercion were involved or intended, Kotecha said.
But each charge requires a body of evidence based on thorough investigation, and in Cambodia, what the US State Department dubs a “lack of competence in evidence collection” by officers, leads to an overreliance on victim’s testimony to build cases.
“Many times, victims do not trust the legal system, they just want to get home safely, and not make any legal complaint, which would cause them a big expense in money and time,” said Chhan Sokunthea, head of rights group ADHOC’s women’s and children’s section In 35 of Adhoc’s documented cases of Cambodian women trafficked to China as brides this year, just four have resulted in arrest.
“It’s not enough to have a unit run by high-ranking officials; it’s not enough to have showcase arrests. You have to have a legal system that prevents and prosecutes the crimes,” said Mu Sochua, opposition lawmaker and former women’s affairs minister.
Cambodia’s laws against trafficking may be in order, but, Kocheta said, “Unless enforcement is breathed into them, the laws themselves aren’t much good.”