A group of former US Embassy security guards who were fired in March for sharing child pornography appeared at the Labor Ministry on Friday to seek assistance from the government in pressing their claims of unlawful dismissal against the embassy.
The guards have been publicly protesting their firing all week, staging a demonstration outside the US Embassy in Phnom Penh during which they brandished signs of US President Donald Trump and appealed for his assistance in the name of human rights and democracy.
They have also submitted petitions to the Foreign Ministry and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s cabinet seeking help in pressing their case.
The 32 fired guards had all been members of a private Facebook chat group that shared “dozens” of sexual images of children who appeared to be as young as 3 years old, an embassy official told VOA Khmer.
The images were sometimes shared while the staff members were on duty guarding embassy employees’ families, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.
The official said the images were being analyzed in the US by experts on child pornography, who had found that some victims appeared to be around 3 years old. Their source has not yet been determined. He said there might have been as many as 100 pornographic photographs shared in the Facebook group, many of “very young children.”
The dismissed guards vociferously protested their dismissal at a protest outside the embassy on Tuesday that garnered extensive coverage by government-friendly website Fresh News, which has run more than 12 stories on the men's’ grievances, in English, Khmer and Chinese, along with live video feeds.
The protest came nearly three months after the firings, but just days after the US incurred the anger of the Cambodian government for instituting sanctions against the chief of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit for alleged human rights offenses.
Phnom Penh City Hall has consistently declined to grant permission for public protests over the past several years, but quickly approved the guards’ request. Municipal spokesman Meas Metpheakdey said this was because their demonstration was seen as harmless, and not because there was any bias at work.
“We approved it since it doesn’t affect public order and national security.”
He declined to comment on why other protests were deemed to affect public order and national security.
Fresh News director Lim Cheavutha said the site’s heavy coverage of the guards’ grievances was not due to any government request, but simply because of the topic’s inherent “interest.”
A guard named Sarith, 45, told VOA Khmer that he started the chat group in July 2017. It was initially titled “US Embassy Security Guards,” but later cycled through several names, including “Security Guard Lothario,” the title of a popular Cambodian song about a guard who seduces another man’s girlfriend.
He said group members sometimes sent explicit pictures of women, but that this should be considered a private matter.
“I used to delete some photographs of sexy girls, like showing breasts,” he said.
“Group messages are confidential for individuals and not for public posting.”
Sarith said he had never personally seen child pornography being shared and that he himself was an “educated and ethical” person, but he could not swear that nobody had sent it, because it was a big group.
“There are different people in the group,” he said. “Some post this, some post that.”
Another of the sacked guards, Choun Im, 46, confirmed that sometimes pornographic material was shared in the Security Guard Lothario group.
However, he insisted he knew nothing about any pornography and had not laid eyes on it himself. Asked how he was aware of the sexual material, he said a friend told him.
“I knew that porn stuff was wrong, but I was not involved with posting those bad videos,” he said. “If it is wrong, I don’t think they should stop me from work. Perhaps just give me a work suspension for a few weeks or give a warning.”
He added that he had never received training from the embassy in online conduct and did not know what rules he had broken.
However, an official “letter of removal” distributed to the fired guards, and seen by VOA this week, clearly lists the accusations against them.
The March 23 letter lays out multiple breaches of the US Mission Locally Employed Staff Handbook they had allegedly committed, including engaging in unethical activities, accessing pornographic material on duty, discrediting the embassy, and “loafing” while on duty.
“You possessed child pornography through a Facebook group, which is illegal in both Cambodia and the United States,” it said. “Additionally, you accessed pornographic material while on duty…. You viewed child pornography while on and off duty.”
Under Cambodian law, a person convicted of distributing, displaying, possessing or presenting child pornography faces between 2 to 5 years in jail and a fine of up to $2,500.
The US Embassy said the matter had been referred to “law enforcement,” but declined to comment on whether Cambodian police were involved in investigating the issue. Interior Ministry and National Police spokesman could not be reached on Friday.