One year ago yesterday, the battered, naked body of French tourist Ophélie Begnis washed up on the shore of the Kampot estuary, a day after she left her guesthouse alone for a bicycle ride.
After two and a half months, police arrested Belgian national Oliver Van Den Bogaert based largely on witness statements that a man of his description was seen throwing a bicycle – which may have been the bike Begnis rode – into the estuary.
Ten months after Van Den Bogaerts’ arrest, however, the case seems no further along, and while the Kampot Provincial Court investigating judge in charge of the case insists that the investigation is still open, Van Den Bogaert’s attorney is calling on the court to either try his client’s case or let him go.
Judge Hong Sokun Vattanak said yesterday that the court is still trying to find more evidence against Van Den Bogaert, but declined to elaborate on the case against him. “I am working on it, and it is progressing, and I cannot say how many witnesses [there may ultimately be]. And I cannot say when the case will be finished,” he said.
Meanwhile, Van Den Bogaert’s attorney and family have said they have witnesses of their own, maintaining that on the day of Begnis’s disappearance, Van Den Bogaert was home sick. On the date he was allegedly seen dumping the bicycle, they maintain, he had spent the day with a Belgian businessman who was prepared to testify on his behalf.
“I asked for my client to be out on bail, since he has been detained for a year already at Kampot Provincial Prison,” but two such requests were denied, said defence attorney Khun Sophal, who asked the court to hasten its work.
However, Sok Sam Oeun, a legal expert and head of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said that the procedures for prosecuting a case under Cambodia’s civil law system make release on bail an unlikely prospect, noting that in felony cases a suspect can be held for 18 months before trial, and that investigators feel little attachment to their caseload.
Police conduct preliminary investigations but have no more involvement after passing cases on to investigating judges, Sam Oeun said. Investigating judges have to gather evidence for both the prosecution and the defence, and therefore feel no obligation to ensure a conviction. Prosecutors, meanwhile, conduct no investigation of their own, and when prosecutions fail, they simply blame the investigators.
“No one is responsible; no one is owner of the case,” Sam Oeun said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY STUART WHITE