Yong Han’s head was found floating in a lake three months after his decapitation.
The 49-year-old fisherman was killed for being a “sorcerer” in November 2013, his head hacked off with a machete, police said.
Naim Vanny, 42, was one of the three men charged over the murder. His wife, Chun Mut, 43, now weaves baskets all day to save enough money to pay off thousands of dollars of debt she says she owes after borrowing money to bribe local court officials to secure her husband’s release. Yet he still remains behind bars.
Interviews with those involved in the alleged payoff and an investigation by a local rights group support the claims of the suspects’ wives that court officials – including one who was a relative – pocketed about $18,000 while failing to deliver on the promised reprieves.
Mut’s family once owned cattle and farmland in Kampong Trach district’s Sala Kang Tbong commune. Her three children went to school like the other kids in the village. Now, more than a year after Vanny’s arrest, everything has changed.
Mut’s house lies off a dusty track in Koh Chamka village, its broken walls and open roof a testament to the continuing cost of her debts.
Along with the wives of the other two men arrested for the crime – Ing Siv and Bun Sara – Mut approached provincial court official Prom Mony, Siv’s uncle, hoping to secure the suspects’ freedom for a price. Between them, they managed to take out loans and sell enough property to drum up the $18,000 they allege Mony requested.
Mony denies receiving the money, saying he only put them in touch with a lawyer, Pov Sreysuor, and telling them he “could not do it as I was about to retire”.
Sreysuor, meanwhile, says he only took a “legal fee” of $600 to officiate the arrangement.
To make the alleged payment, Mut says she borrowed $1,500 from a loan shark and sold a rice field she owned for $2,500. Two buffalos brought in another $2,500. Siv and Sara told similar stories of their attempts to secure enough money to pay the bribe.
“We are rural people, so you can understand we don’t have thousands of dollars lying around. We sold our property because we have nothing else. We went to his [Mony’s] home many times to give him the $6,000 each he wanted,” Mut alleged.
To sweeten the deal, the women brought Mony’s favourite foods: ducks, chickens and four dogs.
After handing over the $18,000 in a series of seven payments, the women say they were shocked to learn that their husbands had each been handed 21-year sentences.
“I spent a lot of money to get him out. He’s innocent. If he was mean-spirited, I would not have tried to help him,” Mut said in a flood of tears.
Police said a fourth, unknown suspect had not been caught; villagers say it is because he is related to a local police official. The sentencing of the three men has led Mut’s children to drop out of school after being bullied by their classmates.
Mut alleges that while in police custody, Vanny was beaten unconscious numerous times in a bid to solicit a confession, but he would not give in.
Police yesterday denied her claim. “We did not hit him to get a confession. His wife just accused us to help set him free. We thoroughly investigated the case, but not with our fists,” said Mao Chan Makthurith, deputy provincial police chief.
While in prison, Mut says she visited Vanny more than once a week to treat the injuries suffered under interrogation, paying a $5 bribe to the prison guards each time.
“The lawyer told my husband to deny knowledge of the killing and then he would be freed, but he wasn’t.… My husband did not see even a drop of blood. He always cries when I visit him in prison.”
Though Vanny had a chance to flee, he stayed in the village to face the charges, she said.
Increasingly feeling the pinch of their debts and struggling to feed their families with their main income source gone, the women pleaded with Mony to return the money. “We went to ask for the money back. After the second visit to Mony’s home, he gave us $2,500 each, but then he told us to go away.”
Mony lives in a large villa in Kampot town, surrounded by gardens filled with fruit trees.
He denied the women’s claims that he cheated them. “They paid about $18,000, but they did not give it to me. I helped them find a lawyer. They handed over the money to the attorney so he would contact the court. I know nothing,” he said.
Mony retired in February last year, the same month that Han’s head was discovered floating in the lake.
He admits he gave each of the women about $3,000, but not to repay a bribe, rather because he “pitied those women, who are very poor”.
Mony’s 48-year-old niece, Siv, also now weaves baskets in the village to pay off her debts, making about $7 per day.
“I gave the money to Uncle Mony, but he tried to hit me when we asked for it back. Sometimes we slept outside in Kampot to ask him again the next day,” she said.
An investigation by local rights group Licadho into the case concluded the women’s stories to be true, the group’s provincial coordinator, Yem Phally, said.
“It is a clear case of corruption, because the court officials told them to pay to get their husbands released. It was so much money for rural people. I’ve never come across such a case before,” he said.
Commune council member Vann Bora also supports the women’s accounts.
The women claimed they did not know offering such payments was illegal, as they had heard of many cases where releases had been secured in a similar fashion.
Mut is now penniless and has not been able to afford the fees to visit her husband in prison for the past two months.
“The rural people are not experienced with this kind of corruption. The responsibility lies with the recipient; he is the one who knows the laws and should be held to account. Our investigation showed the lawyer, Sreysuor, was involved [along with Mony],” Phally said.
Cambodia is consistently ranked towards the bottom of corruption indexes, and last September, a Transparency International report rated the judiciary as the country’s weakest institution.
While the women have filed a complaint at the provincial level with the Anti-Corruption Unit, deputy ACU chief Kheang Seang yesterday said he was unaware of the case due to the number of active cases currently under investigation.