A 63-year-old Sri Lankan man was arrested on charges of trying to sell his two young granddaughters after their home was destroyed and their mother killed in last month’s tsunami, police and local officials said Wednesday.
The man, identified as A.H. Somadasa, was taken into custody Monday at a relief camp where his extended family had taken refuge after the killer waves struck, police inspector W.D.T. Wijesena said.
The two girls, ages 9 and 7, have been returned to their father, Wijesena said.
Somadasa was released on bail Tuesday after appearing before a magistrate in the southern coastal town of Balapitiya. The case returns to court next month.
Lawyer says foreigners initiated contact
The suspect’s lawyer insisted his client was innocent, saying there was no evidence that Somadasa had tried to sell the girls. Instead, the grandfather told him two foreigners came to the shelter offering to help the family but apparently had secret intentions of buying the children, the lawyer, Sumith Dhammika de Silva, said.
The case highlights the vulnerability of children who have lost one or both parents in the wake of the Dec. 26 earthquake and tsunami that killed about 31,000 people in this island country.
The United Nations and international aid agencies have expressed serious concerns that child traffickers could take advantage of the situation and try to sell orphans into forced labor or the sex trade.
“There is definitely a danger. The opportunity is there,” said Udaya de Silva, a police inspector in charge of crimes against women and children in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo.
At the relief camp inside a Buddhist temple, Somadasa’s relatives backed his claims, saying that two men, one English and another Indian, visited the camp several times, asking about orphans and offering to provide aid to the family.
The men asked about Somadasa’s two grandchildren after hearing their mother had died in the tsunami and took pictures of the girls with their grandfather, the girls’ aunt, A.H. Dammi Pushpakanthi, said.
Family member blames foreigners
“They told me they wanted to come help children with no father or mother,” she said, adding the men asked for the girls’ names and addresses and wanted to take photos of them.
“They never said anything about selling the children. My father would never sell the children. He had seven girls and he never sold us.”
However, Wijesena said the foreigners were the ones who tipped off police to the case. The investigation was continuing.
Law enforcement authorities in the southern district of Galle have been told to be on the lookout for potential child trafficking cases, Udaya de Silva said.
Sri Lankan authorities also have posted additional police and military at relief camps to ensure that abuses of women and children does not occur, he said.