Rape of adults and children is increasing in Cambodia yet rarely are offenders
prosecuted. In one recent case the rapist of a 14-year-old girl was successfully
convicted. Rights groups say it is a step in the right direction, but as Sarah
Stephens found out the step was a very small one.
IN THE Phnom Penh Municipal courtroom on July 15, the first defendant was sentenced
to one year in prison for complicity in the robbery of a motorcycle.
The second defendant would be behind bars for the same length of time - his
offense: raping a 14-year-old girl while holding a machete to her throat.
During the hearing, the victim, Sam Socheat (names have been changed to protect her),
stood beside the man who raped her. Police officers peered in the windows to listen
to the case as did more than a dozen strangers who were there in connection with
Socheat was quivering as she gave her testimony, but she was clear and lucid.
She recalled the day - January 12 - a day she should have been at school
but instead was home to help the family.
"It was about 8:30am. I was collecting grass. He approached me and asked to
borrow the machete to cut grass," she said.
"He approached me and held my machete and grabbed me and made me lie down. He
put the machete to my neck. He said that if I move, he will kill me. I pleaded with
him. He raped me for five minutes. It was very painful. After finishing, he ordered
me to dress myself, continue to cut grass, and please keep quiet [about the rape].
I went home to tell my father.
"About 1pm, my relatives took me to hospital in Takhmau. I had two stitches
[for an injury caused in the attack]."
At the hearing the accused, Sarath, said he had no memory of the day but after being
questioned by the judge, Un Bunna, he started to recount what happened.
"I saw the girl cutting grass. She was alone and I grabbed her," he said.
However the slow pace of Sarath's answers so frustrated the judge that he ordered
the clerk of the court to just read out a statement Sarath had made earlier.
The statement said: "I borrowed a machete from the girl. I walked close to her.
I tried to get her to sleep with me.
"I made her lie down. I took her pants off, she pleaded with me, please don't
mistreat me. But I didn't listen to her. She tried hard to escape and screamed at
me. I said to her 'Don't move, if you move, I will kill you.'
"I put in half my penis. I did not finish my purpose. She got up and got dressed
She cried a little. I didn't see any blood. I told her to continue to cut grass.
But she didn't continue to cut grass, she gathered the grass [already cut] and took
Sarath's lawyer, from Legal Aid of Cambodia, mounted a defense arguing that the victim
was still a virgin and that there was a medical report indicating Sarath suffered
a mental illness.
Socheat did not have a lawyer to argue the irrelevance of the debate of her virginity
in accordance with Article 33. The prosecutor did, however, question the validity
of the mental health argument.
Judge Un Bunna then considered the evidence and delivered the verdict: three years'
imprisonment with two of those suspended, and a five year probation period. Compensation
was set at 1.5 million riel (less than $400), considerably less than the $3,000 requested
by the victim's mother.
While the sentence may seem light, it represents a victory and a small ray of hope
for the hundreds of rape victims still waiting to have their cases brought to court.
"It's a very encouraging sign," said Chanthol Oung, Executive Director
of the Cambodian Women's Crisis Center (CWCC).
But to take a rape case to court, let alone gain a conviction, is a rare feat in
Cambodia. At CWCC, of the 38 child rape cases handled in 1998, only two were taken
to the municipal court, although both resulted in convictions.
At the Trauma Recovery Project at World Vision International, manager Chhouk Sopharath
noted that out of seven child rape cases the center handled last year, not one had
gone to court except for the July 15 case.
"There are many rape cases like this, but the victims tend not to go to court
because it can be so expensive," said Sopharath.
"They try to resolve the issues between the families, among themselves."
Laurence Gray, who helps co-ordinate the Trauma Recovery Project at World Vision,
said he believed "[the incidence of child rape] is very high in this country".
He noted that when World Vision officials went into the provinces to educate and
inform communities about the incidence of child rape, there was already a high awareness
of the problem.
But in reality, no-one knows just how bad the problem is, as so many rapes go unreported.
The social stigma attached to such trials discourages many victims from appearing
in public to complain, and many families prefer instead to settle out of court. Some
come to an arrangement with the rapist, either accepting money, or in some cases
actually arranging marriages between the victim and the rapist.
In Socheat's case, the local authorities tried hard to convince the family to take
an out-of-court settlement, but, realizing that this would allow Sarath to go free,
the family refused, and persisted in taking their case to court.
It is easy to see why many would prefer to avoid the trauma of the courtroom. In
Socheat's case, no precautions were taken by the judge to protect the young girl
from unnecessary stresses including having to describe what happened to her in front
of bystanders not connected with the case.
The July 15 trial was not the first time Socheat stood beside her rapist in court
and discussed the intimate details of the case.
The first case took place in the Kandal Court earlier this year. During that trial,
the judge indicated that usually a victim such as Socheat should not be asked questions
publicly in an open court.
Because there were observers present (besides family, friends, and human rights workers
from Licadho, several law students were observing the trial) he allowed them to remain
during the questioning.
However, he ordered doors and windows shut and declared that no one could publish
the name of the victim. He also ordered the prosecutor and defense lawyer not to
introduce any evidence affecting the reputation of the victim.
Socheat braved the scrutiny of the court only to have the case declared a mistrial
as the crime did not take place in the jurisdiction of the Kandal Court.
As there is no juvenile court in Cambodia, there is little provision for the protection
of children who testify, and few lawyers are trained to deal specifically with juvenile
clients, despite Cambodia's signing the International Convention on the Rights of
the Child in 1993. In fact, Socheat did not have legal representation at either trial.
"There is no real difference between the way children are treated in court,
and the way adults are treated," said Chanthol.
Chan Haranvadey, of the Cambodian National Council for Children, said that towards
the end of this year, the council would be looking at the possibility of setting
up a juvenile law to protect children's rights in court.
Chanthol agreed that a juvenile court was definitely needed, but expressed doubts
that it would be a possibility by the end of the year.
"The government has been talking about this since 1995," she said.
"It was recommended by the UN Center, the Child Welfare Group, and many others.
I feel the commitment of the government is going forward, but only slowly."
But while Socheat's family have finally found some sort of justice, they are keen
to point out that they will not stop until the man who attacked Chenda is behind
bars for much longer - and until the compensation offered them is adequate recompense
for their suffering.
"To prepare for this trial cost me a lot of money," said Thun Sal, Socheat's
mother. "I asked for compensation of $3,000, but I was only awarded one-and-a-half
million riel [$400]. I want more money to pay me back for this. And one year in prison
is a short time for him. I need to see him in jail for 16 years, not one."
The sentence is particularly lenient considering Sarath admitted to using a machete
to threaten Socheat during the rape. In Cambodian law, rape carries a penalty of
five to 10 years, while rape "accompanied by fraud, violence, or threats"
carries a punishment of 10 to 15 years.
"You hardly ever see a strong sentence given out," said Chanthol.
Soparath of the Trauma Recovery Center agreed: "The trial was unjust, because
the court decided to convict the rapist, but then only gave him one year in prison.
He should go for at least five years."
But she agreed that his having been convicted at all was a victory. "It's good,
but the judicial system still has such a long way to go," she warned. "Men
continue to dare to commit these rapes because they see how other rapists go free.
They know how bad the system is."
Meanwhile, Socheat herself looked shaken but determined outside the courtroom. She
insists she will go on fighting for justice.
"I think any girl would do what I did. I must be brave because I am the victim.
If I am not brave, no-one will be brave for me."
What the law says
The relevant articles in this case read:
1. Anyone who rapes or attempts to rape another person of either
sex is guilty of rape and shall be liable to imprisonment for a term of five to ten
2. If rape is accompanied by fraud, violence or threats, or if it is committed
by anyone in a position of authority over the victim, the punishment shall be a term
of imprisonment of ten to fifteen years."
Judges must weigh attenuating circumstances to reduce below perhaps even the
minimum prescription punishments outlined in the present text, notably:
"The personal background of the convicted which might lead him or her to abrogate
his or her responsibilities;
"The psychological or psychiatric state of an accused which is certified by
a psychologist or psychiatrist."