Pen Kunthea’s earnings from her factory job were not enough for her to care for her severely disabled young son. She left the factory and, after failing to make ends meet working in a bar in Phnom Penh, turned to sex work.
At Wat Phnom, a well-known gathering place for self-employed sex workers, violence inflicted by security guards on sex workers is well-documented, including in a 2010 report by Human Rights Watch. On the night of January 1, the infamous Daun Penh security guards were on duty to “ensure social order and clean up.” To sex workers like Pen Kunthea, this means run and be ready to pay those security guards if caught.
According to sex workers who escaped the chase that night, Pen Kunthea, 33, ran toward the river nearby. As she attempted to hop onto a boat with the guards still chasing her, she slipped and fell into the water. The owners of the boat wanted to save her, but, witnesses say, they were prevented by the head of the security guards.
Pen Kunthea vanished in the dark. Her body was found two days later floating in the Tonle Sap river and police declared her dead from drowning.
Her sister gave up any hope of finding justice for Pen Kunthea and accepted financial compensation from the Daun Penh district governor.
Will Pen Kunthea’s death be another criminal case considered “closed” because her family has accepted compensation? Or will this be a case that moves all of us to stand together and demand justice for Pen Kunthea and her orphaned son—to be a voice for all those of her social status?
Article 31 of the Constitution, which sets out the provision for human rights, stipulates that “Khmer citizens shall be equal before the law, enjoying the same rights and freedom and obligations regardless of race, color, sex, language, religious belief, political tendency, national origin, social status, wealth or other status.”
Justice for Pen Kunthea, like for any victim, begins with an independent investigation by the police. If she was declared dead by drowning, the next question is: How did she drown?
Among the fundamentals for any investigation is eyewitness testimony and protection of witnesses. Witnesses in this case have spoken: Pen Kunthea was left to die because the security guards wanted her dead, because she was a sex worker that, in their view, created “social disorder.”
The generous compensation of $300 a month given to Pen Kunthea’s family by the district governor to support her son until he reaches the age of 18 should not be an excuse for the police to not conduct an investigation. A full report should be filed.
As outlined in Article 4 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, “Criminal actions are brought by prosecutors for the general interest. Prosecutors initiate criminal charges and request the application of the law before the investigating and trial jurisdictions.”
Based on eyewitness accounts, it seems clear that Pen Kunthea did not die as a result of negligence on the part of the security guards, but as a result of their intention. Such a crime is punishable by 15 to 30 years in prison.
Justice for Pen Kunthea can put an end to the abuse of power of the security guards, as well as those who give them free rein to inflict terror on those they judge to be spreading “social disorder.”
In our capacity as elected members of parliament, the CNRP has sent an official request to the concerned ministers to take action to pursue an independent investigation and prosecution—in order to protect the human rights of all women.
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