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Civil parties put forced marriage back in spotlight

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Sou Sotheavy, a transgender woman who in 2008 became the first civil party to lodge a complaint at the Khmer Rouge tribunal pertaining to gender-related crimes, speaks in Phnom Penh, in 2008. Photograph: Vandy Rattana/Phnom Penh Post Vandy Rattana

She was ordered to cut her hair short. She was forced to wear men’s clothing. She was pushed into a marriage with a woman, and made to consummate that marriage under threat of violence.

During the Khmer Rouge regime – when standing out could get you killed – Sou Sotheavy, a transgender woman born as a man, was destined for trouble.

“The forced marriage affected our sentiment, because we had no passion as a couple,” Sotheavy, now 74 and an advocate for victims of sexual abuse, said in an interview.

The horror of mandatory unions – and the lack of redress at the trial – has been a note of contention for many since the court split Case 002 into mini-trials in 2011. The decision pushed forced marriage, among other crimes unrelated to population transfer, which is the main focus of the first mini-trial, into the queue of subsequent trials that most believe will never happen, given the defendants’ age and health.

But as hearings open today on the scope of Case 002, in response to the Supreme Court Chamber’s February 8th invalidation of the 2011 order to break up the case, calls are growing louder for the court to take another look at forced marriages.

“I think this would be the chance to call on the Trial Chamber to include forced marriages into the case when making a new severance order,” said Silke Studzinsky, a former civil party lawyer who represented Sotheavy.

The reasons, Studzinsky argued, are many. There is the high number of civil parties – 780 – admitted for forced marriage; the crime was grave, widespread and included rape; and its inclusion would require only two more weeks of hearings, Studzinsky and civil party representatives estimate.

“It needs to be acknowledged that these sexualised crimes are not only a by-product, or a private family issue, or not that important, or not that grave,” said Studzinsky.

Studies of the way that the Khmer Rouge tried to remake society into a classless, agrarian state have shown that forced marriage was an integral policy, and that it happened throughout the country. It was a way of breaking down family bonds and redirecting loyalty towards the cause, to the leadership, all of which were embodied in the word “Angkar”.

The unions were often between strangers, or between people from different socio-economic classes.

They created “lasting psychological trauma” and “stripped Cambodians of a major life decision”, a statement by the Cambodian Defenders Project, which published a book last year with accounts of forced marriages, says.

Because many people have not come forward, the number of victims is difficult, if not impossible, to estimate, the statement, released on Friday, says.

“Given that such marriages were organised throughout the country in nearly every co-operative, that the age range for selection as a potential spouse was between 15 and 35 years, that it affected cadres and civilians from all social groups, and that unmarried, as well as formerly married, women and men were counted among the victims, one can begin to get a picture of the magnitude of this practice and thus its relevance to the current proceedings,” it says.

“On behalf of all forced-marriage victims supported by CDP who have repeatedly called for the adjudication of this issue, CDP reminds the Trial Chamber of this historic opportunity to show them that they are not forgotten.”

But despite the chorus of voices calling on the court to bring forced marriages back into the current trial, all indications are that no such thing will happen. Prosecutors may be uneasy about tacking even more on to the trial, which would delay a verdict, and civil-party lawyers have shown no outright interest in pursuing the strategy.

“Basically, everything is fair game now, but the Trial Chamber directions to the parties regarding the consequences of the Supreme Court Chamber decision makes it clear they will try to keep the scope of Case 002/1 as close to the original severance decision as possible because of the length of time and effort that has passed,” Anne Heindel, a legal adviser with the Documentation Center of Cambodia, said.

“So even if civil-party lawyers ask for more, they may not get it. The Trial Chamber only needs to hear them out and offer reasoning for however they decide to sever.

“The process would just be a new severance order saying which charges are in and which are out.”

Elisabeth Simonneau-Fort, the international civil party lead co-lawyer, would not say what she and her colleagues would pursue in the two-day hearings beginning today. But her comments did imply that advocates of sex crimes should brace themselves for disappointment.

“It’s not fair to let people think everything is possible . . . because it’s really possible the Trial Chamber will confirm what it did already,” Simonneau-Fort said. “We also ask everyone to keep in mind the reality of where we are now. We cannot begin from the beginning again.”

News of the hearings on the trial’s scope have not renewed optimism for Sotheavy, who in 2008 was one of the first people to speak out about sex crimes under the Khmer Rouge. She’s lost any hope she once had.

“It’s no problem if the court brings. back forced marriage to the trial or if they don’t. I don’t care,” she said. “Justice for us has provided little.”



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