By Matt Blomberg

PHNOM PENH, Aug 14 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — A high-ranking Cambodian police official has been suspended from duties pending an investigation into "unprecedented" allegations of sexual misconduct made by four junior female officers that hit the headlines, according to the Interior Ministry.

The two-star major general and provincial police chief is accused of forcing officers to perform sex acts at work under the threat of blocking their progress in the police force.

Previous complaints against the police chief were met with ridicule and threats, the four women said in a complaint to the Interior Minister Sar Kheng, which was dated July 30 and leaked to the press on Aug. 10.

The police chief stood down on Wednesday, according to a statement signed by the minister. An Interior Ministry spokesman declined to add further comment on Friday.

The case has hit headlines in Cambodia during an escalating public debate over the treatment of women in Cambodia, where a draft law to restrict what women can wear has raised concerns of further entrenching a culture of victim blaming in sex crimes.

"This case should serve as a reminder that sexual harassment and violence against women should not be met with silence or impunity, as it has been for too long," said Chak Sopheap, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights charity. "These unprecedented allegations come at a time when women's rights are making headlines in Cambodia for all the wrong reasons."

Last week, Cambodian women flooded social media with photos of themselves in swimwear to protest a proposed law that would allow police to fine women for wearing clothing deemed too skimpy and men for going shirtless.

The draft law has been billed as necessary to preserve Cambodian culture, but women's right campaigners fear it could be used disproportionately to target women in the conservative Southeast Asian nation.

A woman was jailed in April after Prime Minister Hun Sen called for authorities to track down online vendors using "provocative" sales techniques, which he said sullied Cambodia's culture and encouraged sexual harassment.

Advocacy groups praised the four women police officers who lodged the complaint for their courage and called for them to be protected while the investigation was underway.

"The women's affairs ministry needs to be involved, to ensure the safety of these women," said Chim Channeang, general secretary at NGO-CEDAW, a charity focused on gender equality. "The government has made its commitments to ending violence against women. Now it's time to show the public it is serious."

The women's affairs ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Amnesty International said accountability for sexual crimes "remains elusive in Cambodia."

"All too often, officials accused of wrongdoing in Cambodia are removed from their posts while the issue receives public attention, only to be quietly moved on to another post when the media attention dissipates," a spokesman said.

Last year, the United Nations highlighted social norms in Cambodia that "justify gender-based violence."

It called for the elimination of the chbap srey, an ancient code of conduct that was part of official school curricula until 2007 and teaches women to be submissive and quiet.


Demand Equity

Cambodia Police Chief Suspended Following 'Unprecedented' Sex Abuse Investigation