PHNOM PENH – Two Cambodian suspects allegedly involved in a human organ trafficking ring were arrested in Phnom Penh this week, officials said yesterday, in what has been hailed as a landmark case in the Kingdom.
Keo Thea, director of Phnom Penh’s municipal anti-human trafficking and child protection police, said 40-year-old Yem Phalla and his 29-year-old stepdaughter Yem Asi Sas were arrested on Tuesday evening at the capital’s Chroy Changva bridge following allegations that they had acted as brokers in a cross-border human organ business.
“They traded human kidneys, and we arrested them based on the victims’ complaints. It is a crime and they will be punished,” Thea said, adding that it was the first organ-trafficking case that his unit had uncovered.
Police have spoken to three of the victims, who showed them the scars from the operation, but the suspects confessed that they had persuaded at least two others to undergo the procedure.
According to Thea, the suspects persuaded victims to give up their kidneys by offering them a payout ranging from $3,000 to $5,000.
After arriving in Thailand, the victims were given fake documents by a Thai-based dealer, with their surname changed to match that of the person in need of a transplant.
Thea said the suspects told police that each kidney would be sold for $13,000 but did not explain how this money was divided with the dealer.
When the Post visited the suspects’ village in Chroy Changva commune yesterday, a relative who asked not to be named claimed that at least two family members had been targeted in the scam.
In an account confirmed by Thea, the source said the case only came to light after Phalla’s 23-year-old cousin Krin borrowed $3,000 from him. When he failed to pay the money back, Phalla stole Krin’s motorbike, prompting a police complaint.
When police questioned Krin about his relationship with the suspect, details of the kidney-trafficking scheme emerged.
“Krin sold his kidney through the suspect about a month ago. One of his older brothers also sold his kidney about a year ago,” the source told the Post.
Kdan Sivutha, a doctor and former director of the National Pediatric Hospital, said that while there are few short-term effects to having one kidney removed, the victims may suffer in the long term.
“The remaining [kidney] will have to work harder.… It will be weaker because only one side will work, and if they are ingesting bad chemicals,” there could be negative effects, he said.
Internationally, there is growing demand for organs, which is causing the illicit trade to explode, according to the Bangkok-based regional office of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
“The most common organs sought for in the ‘organ market’ are kidneys, followed by livers for purposes of transplantation. Such practices have increased exponentially in recent decades with the growing demand for live-donor organ transplants. This demand is attributable to an increasing differential between rates of end-stage renal disease (ESRD) and deceased donor organ donation,” UNODC said in an email yesterday.
But while organ trafficking “follows patterns similar to other forms of human trafficking”, such as exploiting vulnerable populations, there are also “significant differences”, the email adds.
“Some of the actors and modus operandi of this crime stand in sharp contrast to other forms of trafficking in persons, e.g. the requirement of medical professionals, the matching of an organ recipient, the duration of exploitation and the subsequent release of the victim. Knowledge of these practices is not well known and, resultantly, the response globally has been, at best, uneven.”
In Cambodia, the trafficking of organs is prohibited under the anti-trafficking law and is punishable by seven to 15 years’ imprisonment.
But it is a sentence that has never before been handed down, according to Sok Sam Ouen, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project.
“We have never heard of this happening before in Cambodia. Recently, we heard rumours [that organ trafficking was happening], but we have never seen people arrested,” Sam Ouen said.
Som Saret, deputy prosecutor at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, said he would need to see the evidence before he could speculate on what sentence might be delivered in the event of a trial and guilty verdict.
“Trading kidneys is a crime, but we do not know how many years the suspects will be sentenced to. Wait for the documents and the interrogation, but if there is no firm evidence, we still cannot charge them,” he said.