(New York) - Fourteen Vietnamese girls who are alleged victims of trafficking were arrested by Cambodian authorities after they were rescued from a brothel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Human Rights Watch said today.

Authorities should be protecting -- not punishing -- victims of trafficking," said Sara Colm, senior researcher for Human Rights Watch. "While these young women are in prison, their suspected traffickers and the brothel owner are free, protected by a criminal justice system that blames the victim. The traffickers are the ones who should be put on trial and punished."

On June 20, police arrested the fourteen girls at the offices of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that had been sheltering them. The girls are now being held in Correctional Center 2 (Prey Sar) prison on the outskirts of the capital. A warrant for their arrest, issued by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on June 16, charged the girls with illegal entry into Cambodia under the immigration law. [While three of the girls were released on bail on June 24 until their trial, the judge has refused to drop the charges against any of the girls.]

The arrested girls were originally rescued during a police raid on a brothel on May 23 in a red-light district of Phnom Penh, where it is well known that young girls, including virgins, are offered for sex. Ironically it was police officers from the Minors Protection Section of the Anti-Trafficking Unit at the Ministry of Interior who conducted both the rescue operation and the subsequent arrests.

"These arrests violate every principle regarding the appropriate treatment of apparent trafficking victims," said Colm. "They should be provided with medical and legal services, counseling, secure shelter, and given the opportunity to cooperate in the investigation into the traffickers. It is imperative that these girls get the services they need and deserve."

The investigating judge on the case told reporters that initial findings revealed that the girls were trafficking victims, but that when the court learned the girls had entered Cambodia without legal documentation, they were no longer considered victims, but violators of Cambodian law for illegal entry into the country.

Cambodian authorities also say that the girls are all more than eighteen years of age, but human rights observers present during yesterday's arrest as well as workers for the NGO that sheltered them said they are children, aged between twelve and eighteen.

"Although victims of trafficking who are children often need more support and may have been targeted initially because of their vulnerability, their age is ultimately irrelevant. The point is that they are victims, not criminals," said Colm.

The arrests came as Cambodia's donors were meeting in Phnom Penh to pledge billions of dollars in assistance for the next few years, based in part on evaluations of Cambodia's progress in making reforms. A recent report by the U.S. Department of State says Cambodia has one of the worst records on human trafficking.

"Cambodia's donors have provided hundreds of thousands of dollars for programs to fight the sexual exploitation of children and human trafficking. The donors should raise strong concerns about these arrests with the government," said Colm.

Under Cambodian law, the trafficking of human beings by any means for the purpose of sexual exploitation is a crime, regardless of whether the victim consents. Brothel owning and pimping are also crimes under the law subject to strong penalties, especially if the victims are children or are from a foreign country.