PHNOM PENH, (Khmer Times) – One day after Eid al-Fitr – the three day feast to celebrate the end of the month-long fast of Ramadan – Mohammed Tayob Blake was on the plane to Bangkok.
“Once I am out of the country you can do whatever you want with my story,” he stressed in an exclusive interview with the Khmer Times. “But not until then as I am afraid of the Cambodian authorities.”
How it started
Mohammed – then 60 and now 65 – fell in love with 31 year old They Hong Chang, nicknamed Tee. Because he was over 50, they were married under Islamic law. “I was so in love with her. We had HIV tests, exchanged rings and were married at the mosque. We were so happy.”
At the time Mohammed was working on the Selimiye Mosque in South Africa, which is similar to the one in Edirne, Turkey. He claimed he earned about $12,000 a month with his specialized artisan skills, so he could afford the frequent trips he took to Phnom Penh to spend time with his beloved.
Mohammed and Tee got married at the mosque.
He also very quickly turned into a cash-cow. “Her family always wanted money from me. In the 14 to 15 months we were together I must have given them about $35,000. Tee’s mother was the worst,” he commented.
How it got complicated
“Tee, her sister and I were going to go to South Africa, so I bought us all one-way tickets to Bangkok so they could get visas. The plan was that we would go to Cape Town.”
It was September 15, 2010 and a day Mohammed will never forget. “The next morning we left at 07:00 to go to the South African embassy. It took us about 40 minutes to get to there. The women wanted to eat so we stopped at a restaurant. I said I would go to see if the embassy was open because it was only about 200 meters.”
The embassy didn’t open until 08:00. When he got back to the restaurant the women had disappeared.
“I didn’t know what to do, so I looked for them for about half an hour. Then I went back to the hotel and their bags were gone. I went to the airport and bought a ticket back to Phnom Penh.”
He checked into a guest house on the river front. The next morning – September 16, 2010 and a day he would remember even more clearly that the 15th– there was a knock at the door.
“There were three policemen standing there. They told me I was under arrest for human trafficking. At that time I didn’t even know what human trafficking was.
They took me to the police station and interrogated me because they said I had sold two women in Thailand. My mother-in-law had reported it. Next they asked for $1,000 and I said no, I wasn’t going to pay,” Mohammed paused for a moment.
“But if I knew then what I know now I would have just given them the money. They took my passport, my camera, my watch. Everything.”
How it got to jail
After initial processing at Prey Sor, Mohammed was transferred to the Municipal Police Prison. He went into a state of shock.“It was all very confusing. I had not committed any crime and yet I was in jail.”
Mohammed survived in prison by running errands, cleaning and helping where and when he could. Consequently he was allowed out of his cell and allowed to roam around.
“It is corrupt in jail. The director and the guards all take bribes. And there is more alcohol inside than out. Drugs. The ice man brings them in. There is lots of money in A Block and the prisoners there get special treatment. The people in B Block can’t pay.”
As happens in Cambodia, the wheels of the judicial system grind very slowly and it took until 2012 to get an appeal.
How it ended
On June 27, 2014 the case was heard in the supreme court. There was no evidence to substantiate the crime and the mother-in-law did not appear in court.
“The judge said to me, ‘You are free, you can go home today’.”
“My family had sent me some money,” he continued. “The director said I had to pay $400 to have the papers processed. The two deputies wanted $50 each. That is because they knew how much money I had. I cried in front of them. It is a lot of money, but I just wanted to put my foot out of the prison.”
Mohammed managed to get his passport – which is valid until 2019 – from the court with the help of Prisoner Fellowship. “At first they wanted $8,000, but I ended up paying $40 for the exit visa.”
How it will continue
Mohammed is out of the country and on his way back to South Africa. Once there he plans to find work in the building trade again.
What does he want? An official apology from the Cambodian government and compensation.
Cambodia had 3 years, 8 months and 20 days of the Khmer Rouge. Mohammed got an extra seven days.