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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - "Death would be better than that life"

"Death would be better than that life"

Elizabeth Moorthy and Bou Saroeun report on the litany of frustrations that is divorce

in the Kingdom: this a single case.

"I don't understand my hus band, why he is so cruel," begins Moeng Kei.

Wiping away tears, she recounts a tale of domestic violence, divorce, a stolen child,

and a frustrating battle for her home.

Moeng Kei has enlisted the aid of the Project Against Domestic Violence and the Cambodia

Defenders Project (CDP), two NGOs which can help women escape from abusive husbands

and file legal proceedings.

However, a divorce case - even a successful one - may not be the final solution,

as Kei has discovered. Thirteen months after a court awarded her the couple's house

and children, she is still living in a shelter without one of her three sons.

"This is a very common story," said Ashley Barr, a CDP legal adviser. She

said CDP has continued helping Kei as a test case, to try and extend legal aid beyond

court proceedings and through the enforcement process.

"We've picked one client, she was very easy to pick. She's got 'oomph'. Many

women just give up," Barr said, noting that CDP has spent the past eight months

trying to ensure that the responsible authorities implement the court order. "We

found a woman willing to go through this."

Moeng Kei, 29, has gone through a lot. She married Touch Houn in 1985 in a refugee

camp in Thailand, returning to Phnom Penh in 1991. Houn beat her occasionally throughout

the marriage, but the situation grew worse after 1991.

"Twice he beat me so seriously that I went to hospital. I think that if I still

lived with him, I would be hurt worse.

"I didn't want to leave my husband, but he brought his relatives to stay in

the house, and they beat me like my husband did, and sometimes they tried to kill

me, like putting a knife to my throat."

Touch Houn told his wife he didn't love her anymore and that she should leave. He

offered her a choice of the house or the children, but then took all three boys away.

"After three days, he brought back the smallest boy and left him near my house.

He was sick because he hadn't had anything to eat... This last act of his made me

think that I couldn't live with him any more." She got the children back with

the help of local officials, and left in 1995.

A friend referred her to the Project Against Domestic Violence, who supported and

placed her and the children in a shelter, transferring them to another when Houn

found them and began to harass her.

The Project also sent her to the CDP, who helped draft a divorce complaint. "The

complaint was my idea, but I didn't know how to write the letters so they helped

me."

Although the couple had gone through a traditional meeting with local officials when

they separated, agreeing to split their assets, Kei chose to undertake official divorce

proceedings as well. She filed papers in Jan 1996.

On Nov 15, 1996, her case went to trial. "In the morning before I went to the

court, I was a little bit scared, but after I stood up and spoke a few words, and

my body was still strong, I then told the court all the things my husband did to

me."

She had four witnesses on her behalf: her local commune and district heads and the

head of the commune women's association - "because they used to help me when

my husband beat me" - and one representative from the Project Against Domestic

Violence.

Touch Houn, who now works as a translator at the United Nations Development Fund,

did not attend the proceedings. Kei's trial lawyer, Khov Chantha, said of Houn: "When

I went to talk to him, he said to me, 'I am a UNDP official, I don't need to go to

court.' He was very rude. He doesn't seem to respect the law."

Kei had to wait until Jan 10, 1997 for the verdict, but it was very favorable: she

was granted her divorce, awarded sole custody of the children and possession of the

house, and ordered $100 a month alimony, along with other money and belongings.

Houn was not present at the verdict and did not appeal.

"When I won the court case, I felt very happy, because I could get back everything

that I wanted," said Kei. Now, however, reality has set in. "I am unhappy

that the case is won, but I have nothing like the court's verdict."

Although she did receive the televisions and gold awarded to her, and her husband

is paying alimony - though she has to go to his office and ask for it every month

- she has been unable to take possession of the house.

Touch Houn no longer lives there, but Kei claims he has installed a distant relative

to stop her from taking it. The relative, Li Sae, has been repeatedly summoned by

district officials but has never responded.

The court order to implement the verdict came in July. However, due to confusion

among officials as to who is responsible for implementation, no concrete action was

taken until December.

"We have made maybe a hundred visits since July to the court, the district officials,

police," said a frustrated Barr. "If we didn't, nothing would have happened."

What has happened has been none too helpful to Kei. On Dec 8, a party made up of

Kei, two CDP lawyers and a defender, the court clerk, the deputy prosecutor, court

police, district police, and district officials trooped to the disputed house.

Kim Cheng, one of the CDP lawyers on Kei's case, explained: "We were all standing

around the house, the people [in the house] invited the clerk and lawyer and defender

inside. [The legal officials] asked them to move out, but they said no, the house

belongs to them because they bought it."

At this impasse, a bystander was sent to fetch Touch Houn. However, a carload of

armed men arrived instead. "He said very bad words, maybe he wants to prove

he is not afraid. Maybe he wants to threaten," said Cheng of the men's leader.

The group of officials, taken aback, phoned the court prosecutor, Yet Chariya. After

two entreaties Chariya arrived and told the delegation to retreat.

"If the prosecutor had said we must implement the verdict, I am sure there would

have been armed conflict at that time. That would be a very bad example for implementation,"

Cheng noted.

Since the standoff, CDP has made about three dozen more visits to the relevant offices.

They now have a fat file of official letters sent from court to district and back

again, but little else to show for their efforts.

"I know we failed to implement this veredict... it's not easy, you know,"

said Em Lim Hel, deputy inspector of Meanchey district justice police.

He noted that a policeman was shot dead by gun-weilding residents in a similar case

in Russei Keo.

But he added, it is not his responsibility since he was ordered to retreat by Chariya.

"This is the story of the court. We just implement the court's verdict."

The prosecutor, Yet Chariya, said he has requested an investigation into the identity

of the armed men, and that the court would order a new attempt at implementation

pending the outcome. He added that no one person was responsible for enforcement

- "it is the responsibility of all the people who carry out the verdict".

Even CDP doesn't know where to lay the blame. "The law doesn't pinpoint whose

duty it is to implement," lamented Cheng.

To make matters worse, Kei's husband has kidnapped the middle boy after, Barr says:

"a physical tug of war with the child. Kei only let go to avoid having her son's

arm torn off." He has held the boy for over a year and Kei said he has not allowed

her to see him.

Houn, however, told the Post that Kei can see the boy any time. "I never barred

her," he said. He denied that he was rude to Kei's lawyer, that he had physically

grabbed the son, and that he had beaten her - "sometimes we have some argument,

but for hitting, no".

Of the three witnesses who testified he had beaten Kei, he said: "They live

far from my house, how can they see what happened?" He said he had sent three

close neighbors to testify that he did not beat Kei.

He did not appeal the case because he believes the matter was settled in 1994, when

the couple signed the separation agreement. At that time, he claimed, he and Kei

agreed that he would take one son and that he would give her cash for the value of

half the house.

He then sold the house to the current residents. He does however acknowledge still

possessing the title to the property. He said he and the current occupants swapped

houses but have not yet obtained official permission to swap title deeds.

"If you think about the law, I still own the house, it is only an informal exchange,"

he said. But, he continues, the court was wrong and the original separation agreement

should be controlling.

"I am upset about my kids - I have to take care of them, I am their father.

How can it cut them off like that? Same with the house... I don't give it up willingly.

Let the court take it, but for me I will not give it up like that." However,

he denied any connection with the armed men.

Meanwhile, Kei is still living in a shelter with her remaining two sons, training

to be a seamstress. "I'm a little bit angry that the court cannot seize the

house back and cannot carry out the verdict," she said.

District official Hel suggested that Kei should not hold her breath waiting for help

from the court. "This case depends on that woman [Kei]. She has to struggle

hard, do not depend on the court too much. Because you know maybe the court is so

busy."

It's difficult to predict what the future holds for Kei, according to Barr.

Contrary to what Houn believes, the court verdict overrides anything Kei agreed to

in the original settlement, she said. This month was to herald a "flurry"

of motions in the municipal court to try and get the enforcement moving again.

But as CDP is now caught in legal mires of its own. The project's mandate has been

unclear since the beginning of the year after protracted wrangling with the Cambodian

Bar Association, and earlier this month its court operations were suspended by funder

USAID. Kei's champions may therefore be hard pressed to keep up with her case.

Kei, however, does not regret the choices she has made, despite her tenuous current

situation.

"If I were to live with him again, I would die. Death would be better than that

life."

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