Cablegate: Tip Case Raises Corruption Concerns in Sihanoukville

DE RUEHPF #0468/01 0850250
P 260250Z MAR 07





E.O. 12958: N/A


REF: A) 06 PHNOM PENH 1954

1. (SBU) Summary. Despite overwhelming evidence in favor of
conviction, a trafficking in persons (TIP) trial in Sihanoukville
resulted in the acquittal of two defendants and a third being
sentenced to a two-year prison term for the lesser charge of
pimping. The judge's irregular behavior in the courtroom and soft
ruling raise questions about corruption in this case. While
government cooperation on TIP issues is strong in Phnom Penh,
allegations of corruption in the judicial system -- and particularly
in this municipal court in southern Cambodia -- remain a serious
concern. End Summary.

Underage Vietnamese Sex Workers Rescued from Guesthouse
--------------------------------------------- ----------

2. (U) On November 23, 2006, an informant, who was a rescued
trafficking victim herself, told International Justice Mission (IJM)
staff that underage Vietnamese girls were engaged in forced sex work
at the O Pi Guesthouse in the city of Sihanoukville on Cambodia's
southern coast. After a preliminary investigation substantiated the
allegations, IJM alerted the police who raided the guesthouse on
December 12. In addition to rescuing six young Vietnamese women,
police arrested four suspects and seized a number of pornographic
videos and condoms. During initial questioning by the police, the
six young Vietnamese women gave false names and claimed to be over
18 years old. However, during subsequent questioning by the
investigating judge, the six quickly admitted that they had been
coached by O Pi Guesthouse staff to lie about their names and ages.
In fact, five of the six were between the ages of 15 and 17. The
rescued girls also said that they had been coerced into the brothel,
beaten if they refused sex with customers, and forcefully detained
at the brothel. The girls are currently in NGO shelter care and
hope to rejoin their families in Vietnam.

Irregular Court Behavior Suggests Corruption

3. (U) During the first day of the hearing on March 9, 2007,
irregular behavior by the presiding judge, Thak Kim Sea, led IJM
staff to become concerned that he had accepted a bribe in return for
light treatment of the case. After listening to testimony from Be
Si Vanna, the Chief of Sihanoukville anti-TIP Police, that the
victims initially claimed to be over 18 years of age after the raid
on the guesthouse, the judge asked the young women a series of
leading questions. He chastised them for "destroying their
credibility" by initially lying to the police about their names and
ages, and he inappropriately asked each if she had been a virgin
prior to working at the guesthouse. The young women held up well
under such hostile questioning, with one responding to a question
about why she hadn't asked for help by reminding the judge that she
could not effectively communicate with her clients nor most of the
community because she spoke only Vietnamese. The judge then asked
the girls to produce their Vietnamese identification cards. When
they were produced, he questioned their veracity and took them to
the Vietnamese consulate over the lunch break to verify that they
were indeed legitimate.

4. (U) In the afternoon, the judge accused IJM staff of violating
their Memorandum of Understanding with the government by not
informing the police about the tip-off that led to the raid. In
reality, the agreed practice (as followed by IJM in this case) is to
alert the police only after a preliminary IJM investigation
substantiates the tip. When the trial resumed the following week,
the judge ordered the informant to appear -- a request that IJM
viewed as immaterial. The request was also unprecedented in the 104
TIP cases with which they have been involved in Cambodia since 2003.
In addition, during the course of the trial, one observer described
Prosecutor Meas Sophea as less than enthusiastic in prosecuting the

5. (U) When the trial resumed on March 16, Judge Thak Kim Sea
challenged the presence of a large group of expatriate and Cambodian
observers -- including staff from IJM and another anti-TIP NGO,
Action Pour Les Enfants (APLE), and Poleconoff and LES. He
originally said that they had not asked for permission to attend the
hearing, but eventually allowed observers to remain. (Note: Under
the Cambodian constitution, all criminal hearings are open to the
public. End Note.) He then proceeded to question the informant,
attacking her credibility over her lack of identification and her
poor recollection of how many times she had met with IJM staff.

Two Acquitted, One Convicted on Lesser Charge

6. (U) In rendering his decision on March 16, the judge noted that
the six victims did not approach IJM for help and reminded observers

PHNOM PENH 00000468 002 OF 002

that in fact the informant had reported that another young woman,
who was never found, was being held at O Pi Guesthouse. He noted
that the young women were all 15 years or older, and said that, as
Vietnamese citizens, they were legally adults under Vietnamese
family law, thereby making them old enough to consent to engage in
sex work. The judge chastised IJM for not cooperating properly with
the Cambodian authorities and assisting "only Vietnamese girls." He
suggested that IJM work against foreigners who come to Cambodia to
"abuse drugs and to commit other illegal acts."

7. (U) The judge then acquitted the owner of the guesthouse and
another employee of all charges, and convicted one guesthouse
employee of a lesser charge of pimping, ordering her to serve a
two-year prison term plus a three-year suspended sentence, and to
pay a total of USD 2,250 in punitive damages to the six victims.
Prosecutor Meas Sophea was unsure if he would appeal the verdict.
(Note: The fourth suspect had been released several months ago, but
IJM was unclear if charges had been dropped or if he had simply been
released on bail. The court did not appear to expect him to attend
these hearings. End Note.)


8. (SBU) The Sihanoukville Municipal Court has become notorious for
its unprofessional prosecution of TIP cases. In 2005, Judge Thak
Kim San berated an IJM staff member for posing as a sex client,
noting that without a client there could be no crime. The president
of the court, Svay Si Sarot, granted bail on medical grounds to an
accused Amcit pedophile named Terry Smith and his girlfriend, an
alleged trafficker, last year. Smith was later rearrested and
deported to the U.S. to face PROTECT ACT charges while his
girlfriend remains at large (reftel A). It is notable that
Prosecutor Meas Sophea and Sihanoukville anti-TIP police chief Be Si
Vanna, who were both involved in the Smith case, were also involved
with this latest poorly prosecuted TIP case in Sihanoukville.

9. (SBU) While the Cambodian government, and particularly the
Cambodian police, has made laudable progress in combating
trafficking in persons in Phnom Penh, TIP problems in Cambodia's
provinces remain and may be growing in Sihanoukville. This case,
along with a recent report by APLE referencing continued problems
with police and judicial authorities, highlights that all is not
right in Cambodia's bustling beach resort. With the recent opening
of Sihanoukville's airport, the city's attraction to tourists will
only grow. Unless the RGC takes concrete action to stem TIP and
addresses the issue of corruption, the government risks further
embarrassing court cases and worsening relations with those NGOs
handling TIP issues. We will reinforce those points in our next
meetings with MoJ and MoI officials.


© Scoop Media

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