PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA, March 16, 2015
Fifteen-year-old Rida* is the youngest of nine sex trafficking survivors rescued in an operation this past November.
She was the first to testify in court about the abuse she endured in a guesthouse where young women were trafficked and exploited. Rida spoke loudly and emphatically, underscoring the amazing healing that has taken place in her life in the few short months she has been free.
Breaking Up a Trafficking Ring
Rida and the other young women were being exploited by a community-based trafficker and a couple working together just outside Cambodia’s capital city Phnom Penh. They preyed on homeless women and older teenagers who were living in extreme poverty and were desperate for jobs that would help them feed themselves and their families.
The trafficker offered lodging at his home, then arranged jobs for the young women at a nearby guesthouse. Under the cover of the guesthouse, a husband and wife were actually selling these young women to customers for sex.
On nights when there were no customers, the trafficker sent the girls to a local dance club to show them off. An Anti-Human Trafficking & Juvenile Protection Unit police officer worked as a security officer at night at this club. (It is typical in Cambodia for police officers to need a second job to make ends meet for their families.) The officer was compassionate and friendly, and he quickly built rapport with the young women. It didn’t take long for them to see him as a trusted confidant—and someone who could help.
When the police officer discovered what was happening to the girls back at the guesthouse, he alerted the police chief of his unit. He learned that other officers in his unit had been investigating this very same trafficking ring!
Police Lead Outstanding Rescue Operation
When the anti-trafficking police felt confident that they had enough evidence, and the prosecutor supported them in moving forward with an operation, they called IJM for technical assistance. It was a complex endeavor, but the police, using the training that they had received from IJM years ago, succeeded. Two separate rescue teams deployed to the guesthouse and the other house where many of the young women lived. Three suspects were arrested, and nine young women were rescued.
"This operation highlights remarkable changes in the way law enforcement is responding to trafficking in the community. Ten years ago, police lacked the training, organization and will to stop trafficking. As a result, traffickers ruled with impunity and children were routinely sold for sex,” says Christa Hayden Sharpe, IJM Cambodia director.
"Lt. Colonel Ros Savin and his AHTJP unit led a thorough investigation, resisted bribery attempts by the well-connected suspects, planned out a professional operation, and treated the victims with great sensitivity. The original reporting officer even lost his second job at the dance club, but he said he would do it again to rescue the young women. These public justice system officials were personally dedicated to enforcing the law and securing freedom for girls being trafficked and abused in their community,” Christa says.
The government social services agency (DoSAVY) was also onsite to provide support and help place the survivors in shelters. It took many hours and multiple phone calls until they could find homes for all of the survivors, but they persevered.
Another Sign of Change: Standing Up To Corruption
During the operation, police ordered both establishments closed—the guesthouse run by the couple, and the trafficker’s home where the girls lived.
Another high-ranking official (outside the police unit) found out about the operation and called the police chief. He tried to bribe the chief to drop the case. Sadly, this kind of corruption is not atypical. But the police chief’s response sent a strong message: The chief refused to accept the bribe and switched off his phone to avoid the distracting calls and threats.
Both of the guesthouses remain closed.
The Battle for Justice
IJM lawyer Saroeun Sek represented the survivors who chose to participate in the trial, including Rida.All of the survivors testified and shared how they would be transported to the guesthouse where they were abused. They said they were sometimes sent to the dance club to find customers, watching as pimps collected money. Their testimonies strengthened the case that was already built on solid evidence.
On January 26, 2015, the provincial court convicted the wife who owns the guesthouse where the abuse took place, as well as the pimp who owned the house where most of the girls lived.
While the convictions were a sign of justice, the sentences were weak. The primary trafficker was sentenced to two years in prison but will only be required to serve one year of prison-time; the owner of the second guesthouse was sentenced to two years but will only serve four months. Her husband was acquitted.
"This verdict does not reflect the gravity of the crimes perpetrated against the young women who so bravely chose to testify about the abuse they endured. It also undermines the first-rate work of the Kandal Anti-Human Trafficking & Juvenile Protection (AHTJP) police, who rescued these young women from a cycle of violence,” explains IJM Cambodia director Christa Hayden Sharpe.
IJM is working now on an appeal case to ensure the traffickers are held accountable for their crimes. Cambodia’s anti-trafficking police are also advocating that the decision be reviewed and that stronger sentences are given upon appeal.
When IJM attorney Saroeun Sek explained the outcome of the case to the young women and asked if they wanted to appeal the decision to get a higher sentence, Rida was the first to respond, "I would like to continue the case to the appeals court. I do not agree with what the court decided on both the criminal sentence and civil compensation. I have to claim back my rights, the protection rights. I am protected under the law.”
After she stood up, one survivor after the other followed suit. One girl’s courage paved the way for the other young women.
The Bigger Picture: A Changed Landscape
This case highlights a police force that is committed to stopping sex trafficking. These guesthouses and bar were tucked away in a quiet corner outside the busy city, but still the police tracked down this ring and rescued these girls.
As Christa explains: "Ten years ago it was easy to find young girls being sold for sex. But Rida is one of the few minors we were able to identify last year—traffickers know that it’s too risky to exploit children like they used to. Criminals know that the police are active. The game has changed.”
Rida and the other survivors are moving forward too. Most of the girls, like Rida, are transitioning into longer-term aftercare shelters where they can get ongoing counselling and opportunities for job training or education that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. One young woman has been able to move back home with her community.
Rida recently told her IJM social worker that she has a few big dreams. She dreams of becoming a lawyer so that she is able to protect girls and help them know their rights. She also dreams of becoming a doctor so she can help and provide treatment to the poor.
8 survivors participated, including 5 minors