Police have arrested a 63-year-old Sri Lankan man on charges of trying to sell his two young granddaughters after their home was destroyed and their mother killed by the Asian tsunami — a case that highlights the vulnerability of children in the wake of the disaster.
The United Nations and international aid agencies have expressed concern that child traffickers are exploiting the chaos in countries hit hardest by the tsunami, and trying to abduct and then sell orphans into forced labor or the sex trade.
"There is definitely a danger. The opportunity is there. The situation will attract (traffickers)," said Udaya de Silva, a police inspector in charge of crimes against women and children in the Sri Lankan capital of Colombo.
The arrest Monday of A.H. Somadasa at a relief camp in the southern village of Batapola was the first official case since the tsunami of child trafficking in Sri Lanka, which has a history of pedophiles and sex tourism.
In Indonesia, where there have been confirmed cases of attempted child trafficking, the concerns are serious enough that the government has placed restrictions on youngsters leaving the country, ordered police to be on the lookout for trafficking and posted guards in refugee camps.
Somadasa was brought before a magistrate Tuesday in the coastal town of Balapitiya and released on bail, police Inspector W.D.T. Wijesena said. The two girls, age 7 and 9, were released into the custody of their father.
The suspect's lawyer, Sumith Dhammika de Silva, insisted his client was innocent, saying there was no evidence Somadasa tried to sell the girls. He said two foreigners had come to the shelter offering to help the family but apparently had secret intentions of buying the children.
At a temporary relief camp at a Buddhist temple, Somadasa's relatives backed his claims of innocence, saying two men, one English and another Indian, had visited the camp several times, asking about orphans and offering to aid the family.
The men asked about Somadasa's two grandchildren after hearing their mother died in the tsunami, and took pictures of the girls with their grandfather, said the girls' aunt, A.H. Dammi Pushpakanthi.
"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.
"They never said anything about selling the children. My father would never sell the children. He had seven girls and he never sold us."
The two men — whom she described as a heavyset Englishman named John wearing a white T-shirt and beige shorts and a bald Indian called himself Ranjev — had said they were staying at a hotel in nearby Bentota, Pushpakanthi said.
"He asked me, 'Can you care for the two babies?' I said they are my sister's children. They are like my children," she said.
The head monk at the temple, Batapola Namda, corroborated part of the family's account, saying two foreigners came to the camp at least twice. But Namda said the men's driver overheard them talking about buying children and alerted police.
The monk said he did not know if the grandfather offered to sell the children.
However, police inspector Wijesena said the foreigners, one of whom identified himself as a "member of the media," were the ones who tipped off police.
"They were the informants, not the culprits. They gave assistance to launch the case. They are not the suspects," he said.
Authorities are continuing their investigation into the case, which returns to court in a month.
Pushpakanthi, 34, said the incident has brought great shame to a family already struggling with the loss of her sister, 29-year-old Rukshi, and their beachfront home.
Now the family's worry is that the two foreigners will return and take her nieces, she said. "They have their names and photos," she said. "They can come back any time."
The incident has raised alarm bells across Sri Lanka, where child protection workers and police are doubling their efforts.
Child protection offices have been told to be on the lookout for these types of incidents, inspector de Silva said. Authorities have posted additional police and military guards at relief camps to ensure women and children are not abused, he said.
UNICEF said the disaster's aftermath could create a double tragedy — increasing the likelihood that people who have lost everything will be tempted to sell off children who are an economic burden.
"There is a clear danger that as time goes by, people will become more desperate," said Sajeeva Samaranayake, a UNICEF program officer for child protection. "They will have other needs."