Award-winning Cambodian activist quits after probes into her past

PHNOM PENH Thu May 29, 2014 1:23pm BST

Cambodian activist Somaly Mam (R) accepts a ''Woman of the Year'' award with a child she rescued from sexual slavery, during the 2006 Glamour Magazine ''Women of the Year'' Honors award show in New York City October 30, 2006. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Cambodian activist Somaly Mam (R) accepts a ''Woman of the Year'' award with a child she rescued from sexual slavery, during the 2006 Glamour Magazine ''Women of the Year'' Honors award show in New York City October 30, 2006.

Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson

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PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Somaly Mam, a Cambodian known globally for her fight against sex trafficking, has quit the foundation that bears her name after a private investigation into the validity of stories she told to raise public awareness and millions of dollars in funds.

The foundation said Somaly Mam resigned following an investigation by U.S. law firm Goodwin Procter, which looked into her personal history and the background of a victim of trafficking whose story the foundation used to publicise its work.

"As a result of Goodwin Procter's efforts, we have accepted Somaly's resignation effective immediately," Gina Reiss-Wilchins, executive director of the Somaly Mam Foundation, said in a statement.

"While we are extremely saddened by this news, we remain grateful to Somaly's work over the past two decades and for helping to build a foundation that has served thousands of women and girls."

The resignation came just days after a cover report in Newsweek magazine, written by former Cambodia Daily journalist Simon Marks, whose reporting in the past two years identified numerous inconsistencies in Somaly Mam's personal story and those of victims her foundation said it had helped to rescue.

Somaly Mam was named among Time magazine's 100 most influential people in 2009 and has won numerous awards, including Glamour magazine's Woman of the Year in 2006, all for her campaigning against sex trafficking.

Somaly Mam's foundation attracted global interest after support from celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Susan Sarandon and speeches at the White House and the United Nations. She also received an award from Spain's Queen Sofia in 1998 for her anti-trafficking work.

Somaly could not be reached for comment.

With a history of war and poverty, Cambodia has long battled against sexual exploitation of women and children, but foreign donors and aid groups say progress is being made in law enforcement and education, as shown by a reduction in the number of victims in recent years.

Somaly Mam's life story was documented in her biography "The Road of Lost Innocence".

Long Pross, the victim of trafficking whose story the foundation used to publicize its work, was featured on several U.S. television networks.

But Newsweek, which interviewed her parents, raised questions about the validity of her story of being kidnapped, sold to a brothel and tortured.

Somaly Mam's former husband, Frenchman Pierre Legros, rejected a claim made in her book that the couple's daughter had been kidnapped several years ago as a result of Somaly's fight against sex slavery.

He insisted their daughter had eloped with her boyfriend and said investigations into Somaly Mam's stories showed the need for better oversight with non-governmental organisations.

(Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Martin Petty and Ron Popeski)

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