It’s a Sunday afternoon in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Keng Kang 1 commune, and Little Fashion is buzzing. Every weekend, the popular clothing shop fills with customers—not ordinary window shoppers, but loyal Facebook fans—all looking to try on or pick up whatever items caught their eye on social media that week.
Somaly Mam, the well-known anti-trafficking campaigner, has admitted that a comment she made at the U.N. General Assembly this month was inaccurate and that the Cambodian army had not killed eight girls following a raid on her organization’s Phnom Penh center in 2004.
Speaking on a U.N. panel to member states, international aid organizations and the media in New York on April 3, Ms. Mam said that eight girls had been killed after her organization, Afesip, conducted a high profile raid on a massage parlor at the Chai Hour II Hotel in Phnom Penh, where 83 women and girls were taken and placed in her refuge center.
“At the April United Nations General Assembly event, some of my comments were ambiguous and my intention was not to misrepresent the course of events in 2004…. I had in no way intended to allege that girls were murdered during the shelter raid,” Ms. Mam said in an email yesterday from Bangkok.
“Rather, I had received information some time after the event via a reliable source that a number of the girls/women involved in the raid later died in a series of accidents, which we believed could have been connected to their traffickers and pimps,” Ms. Mam said.
Ms. Mam noted that no reports or formal complaints were ever filed by her organization with authorities regarding the eight alleged deaths as recounted by her source.
A police official, who last week expressed skepticism at Ms. Mam’s initial claims of eight killed at her center, was equally doubtful of her clarification yesterday.
“I have never heard of any women dying. All that I heard was that women left the shelter run by Ms. Somaly Mam,” Phnom Penh municipal anti-human trafficking police chief Keo Thea said.
Ms. Mam did not respond yesterday to a request to identify the eight women and reveal how they had allegedly died.
The U.S. Embassy, which monitors human trafficking crimes globally and can impose sanctions on countries that do not protect victims of traffickers, said that it would seek further information about Ms. Mam’s claims.
Ms. Mam also responded yesterday to claims by her ex-husband and one-time Afesip director Pierre Legros that she had misrepresented an incident involving their daughter in 2004. Ms. Mam has long claimed that the teenager was kidnapped and suffered serious abuse at the hands of human traffickers in retaliation for her raid on the Chai Hour II Hotel.
Mr. Legros said their daughter was not kidnapped, but had run away with her boyfriend, and claimed the abduction story was being used as “an argument of marketing for the Somaly Mam Foundation.”
Ms. Mam insisted in her email that her daughter had been kidnapped.
“I believe my daughter was kidnapped and, as such, an official complaint was filed at the time of the incident several years ago. I received the full support of the Ministry of Interior, which was instrumental in tracking down my daughter. I am also vigilant about protecting the privacy of my daughter and therefore hope to put this matter to rest in the press and publicly going forward,” Ms. Mam wrote.
The U.S. Ambassador at the time, Joseph Mussomeli, wrote in a diplomatic cable in 2004 that Afesip reported that Ms. Mam’s daughter had been “lured by her peers” to Battambang province, where she was later found in a night club in the company of three men who were arrested and charged with trafficking.
In her 2007 autobiography, Ms. Mam wrote that the people involved in the kidnapping of her daughter were later released from jail, though a trial was pending.
Ms. Mam did not respond yesterday to a request for information on the identities of her daughter’s alleged kidnappers and the status of their trial.
Senior Interior Ministry and Phnom Penh municipal anti-trafficking police, along with court prosecutors in both Phnom Penh and Battambang, said this week that they know nothing of the alleged kidnapping of Ms. Mam’s daughter.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)
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