PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA – After years of operating brothels where girls were bought and sold for sex, a very well-connected and powerful brothel owner has been arrested by the Anti-Human Trafficking Unit of the Cambodian National Police in an operation that also resulted in the permanent closure of two brothels. IJM assisted police in preparing for the operation in both brothels, collecting strong evidence that underage girls were forced to have sex with customers.
According to victims from one of his brothels, the owner forced them to see customers regardless of illness or time of day. Facing daily abuse and sometimes even death threats, victims were never allowed to leave the brothel alone for fear they would try to escape. One young woman's mother attempted to take her daughter out of the brothel, but the owner started shouting at the mother, boasting: "I've been in this business for over twenty years. No one dared to harm us." Under threat of physical abuse, the mother was forced to leave her daughter behind.
The owner ran his brothels in a neighborhood notorious not only for prostitution and the flagrant sexual exploitation of underage girls, but also for a high number of failed rescue operations in the past. Last September, IJM and police conducted an operation to rescue four women and girls from one of the same brothels. The owner escaped arrest, simply because he was not present on the night of the operation. With no personal consequences, the owner reopened the brothel several months later and continued to exploit girls.
"Big fish," as brothel owners are sometimes called in Cambodia, typically only visit their brothels to check in and collect money, tasking managers with handling daily business and rule enforcement. As a result, brothel managers are arrested much more frequently during police operations than owners.
The arrest of this brothel owner, however, represents not only the long term closure of his brothels, but also clearly demonstrates to other owners that they are not beyond the reach of the law, and their crimes have serious consequences. "It is significant that the brothel owner, rather than subordinates, was arrested during this operation," explains IJM's Director of Investigations in Cambodia. "His arrest sends a message to other brothel owners in the vicinity that brothels exploiting underage girls will not be tolerated by the police and Royal Government of Cambodia."
The Owner is Arrested
"You can see a difference in areas where brothel owners have been arrested in the past. When you catch a big fish, things change dramatically for the better."
- IJM Director of Investigations, Cambodia
On the night of the operation, IJM staff accompanied police to the two brothels. Police had taken several measures to ensure confidentiality and prevent possible information leaks, including holding all planning and logistical meetings at a secret location. The extensive planning and high level of secrecy led to the successful arrest of the brothel owner at the site of a sting operation and the detention of eleven suspects at the brothels.
Seventeen trafficking victims rescued from the two brothels received immediate care and counseling following the police operation. Three of the survivors , all minors, are currently living in aftercare shelters where they will continue to heal. Four victims have decided to pursue a court case and civil compensation from the brothel owner, and will be represented by an IJM lawyer.
The brothel owner will await his trial from prison, where he will face charges for procurement of minors for prostitution – a crime carrying a potential fifteen year sentence. IJM's Director of Investigations expects this arrest to have a deep impact on the surrounding community: "You can see a difference in areas where brothel owners have been arrested in the past," he says. "When you catch a big fish, things change dramatically for the better."