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Torture, forced labor alleged at Prince Group-linked compound

This is the third article in a three-part series on the Prince Group. For Part I of RFA’s investigation, click here. For Part II, click here

Panha has an idea of the horrors that take place within the Golden Fortune Science and Technology Park in Cambodia’s southeastern border town Chrey Thom. He has witnessed what happens to those who try to leave.

“When they recapture escaped workers they beat them until they’re barely alive. I’ve seen it with my own eyes,” Panha told RFA, declining to give his family name. His brother, he said, is head of security at the 15-acre (four-hectare) facility, and Panha has watched him hunt down escapees. “If you don’t beat them they will stop being afraid and more will try to escape.”

While the compound is ostensibly open to the public, and billed as an industrial park, it is surrounded by a 10-foot-high (three-meter) concrete wall topped with barbed wire. Its heavy, metal front gate is manned by uniformed security guards, who bar entry to ordinary visitors. 

Built by the powerful and well-connected Prince Group, the facility now counts cyberscam operations among its businesses, according to witnesses, staff and former employees. While the group denies any involvement in the park, it is run by a company headed by Prince executives and bears several other indicators of connections to the group.

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Golden Fortune Science and Technology Park in Chrey Thom, Cambodia, is surrounded by a 10-foot-high concrete wall topped with barbed wire. It is seen here in a recent photo. (RFA)

Inside, locals allege, trafficked Vietnamese, Malaysian and Chinese nationals are forced to carry out cyberscams. They are part of an enslaved workforce that the U.N. estimates numbers approximately 100,000 people across Cambodia – a claim the government denies.

Fourteen local residents – among them current and former employees working at the Golden Fortune compound – separately told RFA they had witnessed security guards violently subduing escaped workers before returning them to the compound. For security reasons, witnesses requested their names not be used. At least two other Prince Group-linked properties have previously been connected with human trafficking and cyberscam operations, according to local and international media reports. 

Prince Group spokesperson Gabriel Tan told RFA that while the conglomerate built the Golden Fortune compound, it did so at the request of a client, whom he declined to identify. Asked about allegations of trafficking and cyberscam operations within the compound he added, “we are unaware of the incident you mentioned.” 

Cambodian corporate records suggest that the park’s parent company, Golden Fortune, is run by Ing Dara, a businessman with extensive ties to the Prince Group. He holds directorships in a number of Prince companies, including one cited by the Prince Group’s founder as the ultimate source of his wealth in disclosures to an offshore bank. Ing Dara and Golden Fortune could not be reached for comment. 

RFA has previously revealed that Chinese police have established a special task force to investigate the Prince Group’s alleged money laundering and illegal online gambling operations run from Cambodia. In part two of our series, RFA explored how illicit funds appear to be washed and funneled into legal Prince Group-affiliated businesses. 

This final installment in the three-part investigation into the company explores allegations that one of its facilities holds victims of Asia’s blossoming cyber-slavery industry. 

Dirty jobs

Chrey Thom is a one-road town abutting the Bassac river just a few hundred yards upstream from Vietnam. Like many border communities in Cambodia, the town is thick with casinos built to service foreigners who face restrictions on gambling in their own countries. 

A Cambodian government crackdown against online casinos in 2019 forced many to close. In some cases, the empty real estate has been taken over by criminal gangs that force trafficked workers to perform cyber fraud. Such frauds have exploded in recent years, in particular “pig butchering” in which victims are lured into putting large sums of money into phony investment schemes. However, those performing the scams are often also victims held against their will and forced to find people to dupe using various online platforms. 

As cyberscam operations have proliferated, they’ve also been found operating in office blocks, apartment complexes and what appear to be purpose-built compounds. 

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A “hotel” just outside the Golden Fortune compound in Chrey Thom, Cambodia, has bars on its balconies to keep people from getting out, sources tell RFA. (RFA)

Set on 15 acres of land and surrounded by concrete walls topped with barbed wire, the Golden Fortune facility hosts a soccer field, a basketball court and 18 large dormitory style buildings, all of which were constructed since mid-2019, according to satellite imagery reviewed by RFA. 

Metal bars cover the dormitory windows on each of the five floors, suggesting they are designed to keep people in.

Those allegedly imprisoned inside are mostly Vietnamese and Chinese, locals said. Cambodians work inside the compound, too, in security roles. Online Khmer-language advertisements for jobs within the compound seen by RFA called for Cambodians who speak Vietnamese, offering a salary of $600-800 a month on top of three meals a day and accommodation. 

Though relatively well-paid, such work is wholly unappealing to 60-year-old Moeun, who asked that her full name not be used. She spoke with RFA reporters while standing in the thigh-high oily water of a drainage canal, catching fish with her bare hands.

“If we don’t do good work and torture they will cut our salaries, so we prefer to come here and catch some fish to get some money,” said Moeun, whose children had worked inside the compound. “Besides working for them, what else can we do?” 

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A former Golden Fortune security guard says workers who escaped from the compound, the triangle-shaped area seen in this Dec. 19, 2023 satellite image, would be hunted down and bounties offered for their return. (CNES/Airbus)

Her account was confirmed by a current Golden Fortune employee, who told RFA that disobedient or unproductive workers are detained on the first floor of a building named B1 and violently punished. Many female workers in the complex are forced into prostitution and pornography, the staffer added.

The employee compared the situation inside Golden Fortune to the Chinese thriller “No More Bets,” in which Chinese nationals are trafficked into a Southeast Asia scam compound, where they are abused and forced to help run illegal online gambling scams. 

“The problems in there are like what the Chinese movie has revealed,” the staffer said. “Scams and extortion exist in there.”

According to the employee, besides the scams, prostitution and pornography, extortion is another business model. Victims are released only if their families pull together adequate ransom – a common hallmark of scam compounds

“If ransom was not provided as demanded, mistreatment, beating and electrocution would be used and video clips [about the torture] are sent to the family to see,” the staffer said. 

Another local resident, who lives near the compound told RFA that he had seen security guards knock escapees to the ground with a car and tase them with electric cattle prods before driving them back to the compound. He claimed local police are employed as security guards at the compound. 

Local Sampav Poun commune police chief Khuth Bunthorn told RFA that he was unaware of any cases of detention or forced labor in his commune.

A former security guard at the Golden Fortune compound told RFA that trafficked scam employees worked 12 hours a day and would usually be sold on to another compound within six to 12 months. The former guard added that while they were no longer employed at Golden Fortune, they would still occasionally hunt down escaped workers from the compound. Local residents told RFA that Golden Fortune doles out $50 bounties for returned escapees.

Interior Ministry Secretary of State Chou Bun Eng, who is secretary general of the National Committee for Counter Trafficking, told RFA that she was unaware of any trafficking cases in Chrey Thom.

A bustling compound

RFA reporters were barred from entering the Golden Fortune compound when they visited Chrey Thom last year, with security guards declining to say why. 

Footage posted to social media in September showcases an array of restaurants, massage parlors and even a small hospital within its walled kingdom. Both the videos and satelite imagery indicate it is home to more and higher quality paved roads than the surrounding village. In one video, a billboard within the park can be glimpsed advertising 6,700-square-foot (622-square-meter) villas in Phnom Penh. 

The Golden Fortune compound is listed on the official website of Prince Huan Yu Real Estate – a subsidiary of the Prince Group – and its location is pinpointed on its “property distribution map.” 

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The Golden Fortune compound is listed on the website of Prince Huan Yu Real Estate – a subsidiary of the Prince Group – and its location is pinpointed on its “property distribution map.” (Image from Prince Huan Yu Real Estate)

The Prince Group bills itself as one of Cambodia’s hottest conglomerates, with interests in everything from real estate to film production. It was founded a little under a decade ago by Chen Zhi, a politically connected Chinese émigré who became a naturalized Cambodian in 2014. Chinese court documents have termed his conglomerate a “notorious transnational online gambling criminal group” and alleged at least 5 billion yuan ($700 million) of its revenue came from illegal online gambling. 

In 2022, a court in the Chinese county of Wancang announced that 45 individuals had been found guilty of establishing illegal online casinos in collaboration with the Prince Group. The announcement listed three locations in Cambodia where this had taken place, among them was “Caitong City,” the Chinese name for Chrey Thom.

The eyewitness testimony related to RFA would suggest that like so many online gambling operations in Cambodia, the Prince Group has pivoted to forced labor. 

In a 2022 documentary by Al Jazeera, a victim explained how he had been held captive and forced to scam poor Chinese farmers over messaging apps in a property held by Cambodian Heng Xin Real Estate. That company was founded by Chen; in leaked banking records shared by whistleblowing non-profit Distributed Denial of Secrets, the company is listed as the source of Chen’s wealth. Today, Cambodian Heng Xin Real Estate has two directors, both of whom have extensive links to the Prince Group. One of them, Ing Dara, is listed as the chairman of Golden Fortune Resorts World, whose name and address matches the Chrey Thom complex.

Months before it was shut down by the government, local news outlet Voice of Democracy reported on a human trafficking raid on another Prince Group-linked property.  

Such linkages between Prince Group property and cyberscam operations could prove awkward for Prince’s political patrons. These include recently retired Prime Minister Hun Sen, former Interior Minister Sar Kheng, former National Assembly President Heng Samrin, as well as the current Prime Minister Hun Manet – each of whom Chen serves as an officially appointed political adviser.   

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Prince Group founder Chen Zhi, seen in back at left at a meeting in Cuba in September 2022, serves as an adviser to former Cambodia Prime Minister Hun Sen, second from left, current Prime Minister Hun Manet and other influential figures. (Hun Sen via Facebook)

China, Cambodia’s most forceful sponsor on the world stage, has made clear its intention to crack down on cybercrime overseas. In October, Cambodia’s newly appointed premier, Hun Manet, met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. Buried on the third page of a press release issued by Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry after the meeting was a commitment, “to further enhance cooperation in law enforcement, particularly in combating cross-border gambling, drug and human trafficking, cybercrime and fake news.”

For some in Chrey Thom, though, that cooperation could not come soon enough.

One resident of Chrey Thom said he and his neighbors would always try to help whenever they encountered an escapee. He remembered one time in particular, when cries of, “Thief, thief, thief,” preceded a bedraggled man crashing into his home.

“He put his hands together and begged for mercy,” he recalled, adding that he gave the man five dollars before sending him on his way, wishing he could have done more for him.

“We pity them and the injustice they suffer, but we cannot do anything,” he said.

Edited by Abby Seiff, Jim Snyder, Mat Pennington and Boer Deng.