Women report being detained as sex workers if they go near Wat Phnom at night.
Sex workers walk the street near Wat Phnom, a well-known area for prostitution.
WOMEN who live near Wat Phnom are refusing to leave their houses at night for fear of being arrested and detained as sex workers, according to women who live in the neighbourhood. But municipal police deny there is a crackdown on "normal girls" and the commune chief says police are not holding women in detention centres, merely "educating and releasing them".
Ho Socheata, 21, says she was arrested at 10pm while picking up milk for her two children last month.
"I left home to buy milk for my children at night near Wat Phnom, and I met my friend. We were talking to each other, and then I saw police come to arrest us, but my friend ran away," Ho Socheata said.
When she did not have the US$50 needed to pay for her freedom, the police locked her up for a night at the Daun Penh station, she said.
Ho Van, a Sam Rainsy Party member of parliament who helped ensure Ho Socheata's release, said, "The police should be careful about the women they arrest because it is easy to arrest the wrong person."
Women who live in the area are now staying clear of Wat Phnom after sundown.
"I don't go out at night to Wat Phnom now because I am afraid the police will arrest me if they think I am a sex worker," Sok Chan, 24, said.
A coconut vendor near Wat Phnom confirmed that she regularly saw police raids of the area between 10pm and 1am.
"Sometimes I see sex workers and beggars arrested and put in police cars. They have to live in the probation centre for over two weeks.... I know because the sex workers come to buy my coconuts, and they complain about the problem," Yem Chantha, 43, said.
But Touch Naruth, Phnom Penh's municipal police chief, said Tuesday there was "no crackdown on normal girls" and said the reports to the contrary were just hearsay.
"They just spread rumours. There is no report to us from local authorities there. If women [who are not sex workers] were arrested, then they would complain to us," he said.
The crackdown, he said, was only on sex workers who corrupted the morals of the city and caused disorder. But he did caution against women walking alone in Phnom Penh late at night.
"My suggestion is if you are a normal girl, you have to be careful going out late at night. You must go out with many people, not alone," he said.
Touch Naruth was confident his police only arrested sex workers, saying: "Police cannot just arrest girls without determining who is a real sex worker and who is not."
But Ho Van said it was not always that easy to determine which women are sex workers.
"[Sex workers] mix easily with others in order not to be recognised," he said.
The Srah Chak commune chief, Chhay Thirith, said commune police were on duty every night around Wat Phnom but that police only educated sex workers about the dangers of prostitution and did not detain women for long periods.
Though he said only sex workers had been arrested, he warned women against going places at night.
"Police target sex workers after 9pm, so those girls who travel at night must be careful ... because travelling at night is dangerous. They will be considered bad."
No matter what police and politicians say about only arresting sex workers, Ho Socheata refuses to go out at night, worried that she could be thrown into a detention centre again.
"I am very scared of the police. I don't know why they do this," she said.