Cambodia orders closure of Christian anti-trafficking group following CNN report on sexual slavery

(Reuters/Samrang Pring/File Photo)FILE PHOTO: President of the ruling Cambodian People's Party and Prime Minister Hun Sen attends a ceremony to mark the 65th anniversary of the establishment of the party in Phnom Penh June 28, 2016.

The Cambodian government ordered the closure of a Christian anti-trafficking charity last week after it was featured in a recent CNN report that highlighted the plight of young girls being sold into sexual slavery by their own mothers.

The country's authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen called for the closure of Agape International Missions (AIM), which was featured prominently in the recent CNN report that highlighted the situation of three girls who were reportedly sold into sex slavery by their impoverished family members.

The report, which was initially headlined "The Cambodian girls sold for sex by their mothers," sparked outrage on social media because one of the victims spoke Vietnamese. The word "Cambodian" was later removed from the headline, according to Phnom Penh Post.

"This is a serious insult," Hun Sen said, ordering the interior and foreign ministries to launch an investigation.

"In many countries, for only drawing cartoons their magazine must be shut down, but in our country, we are insulted [to the point of] saying that mothers sold children to become prostitutes. We cannot accept this big insult, and we are going to close the NGO involved," the prime minister went on to say.

AIM, which is based in California, was launched in Cambodia in 2005 by American Pastor Don Brewster in an effort to fight child trafficking in the country.

Brewster said that the organization, which is mostly focused in the Svay Pak area near the capital city, has so far rescued more than 700 people. He asserted that Svay Pak was once the "epicenter" when it comes to child sex trafficking.

"We would say when we came [to Svay Pak] it was 100% -- if you were a girl born here, you were going to be trafficked. We would say today it's significantly below 50%," he said.

The pastor said that the trafficking is no longer taking place in brothels, but he warned that it is now being conducted in hotels, where it is harder to detect and to prevent.

The CNN report, published on Aug. 1, featured a girl named Sephak, who said that she was only 13-years-old when she was sold for sex by her mother. Ann, the girl's mother, said that she sold Sephak for $800 because she saw no alternative as she has debts to pay.

Ann said that she pressured her daughter to work in a brothel, but said that she later regretted her decision. Sephak, now a woman, has since joined AIM to help other survivors earn money by making bracelets and clothing.

AIM has reportedly worked alongside local anti-trafficking police in raids to free victims. The organization claimed that it has rescued 600 people last year, and has received multiple letters from the government thanking the charity.

Brewster was unable to comment on the prime minister's order, but two AIM workers, who wished to remain anonymous, said that they would be disappointed if the charity were to close.

"I would be afraid to lose this NGO. I would be very sad if I lost my job. This is very important for the community," one worker said. "For children who have a lack of warmth from their family, we teach them," said another.

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