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Sex and punishment: Cambodia’s adultery law

Monogamy Law could be phased out with a new penal code

WHEN Prom Sith, 27, returned to his home in Dangkor district’s Choam Chao commune one afternoon in August, the last thing he expected to find was his wife, 23-year-old Phy Samphors, in bed with another man, who happened to be wearing her underwear at the time.
While someone else might have sought to take his anger out with a good beating, or worse, Prom Sith opted instead to detain both his wife and her lover, Sum Yimsak, and to call in commune police. Officers at the scene took both in for questioning on suspicion of adultery, an act that was made a crime by the National Assembly just over four years ago.

Recalling the case recently, deputy district police chief Choub Sok Heng said the ensuing exchange revealed apparently irreconcilable differences between Prom Sith and his wife of just six months.

“She said to her husband, ‘In fact, I do not love you, but my parents forced me to be married to you,’” Choub Sok Heng said. “She said, ‘Sum Yimsak and I have loved each other since high school.’”

In the end, Prom Sith opted not to pursue a criminal complaint under the Kingdom’s controversial – but rarely utilised – 2006 Monogamy Law, instead demanding, and receiving, a hefty compensation payment.

“We brought them in on her husband’s demands, but we did not charge them under the Monogamy Law because the husband only demanded her and Sum Yimsak to pay US$1,800 in compensation,” he said.

Phy Samphors, for her part, promptly asked for a divorce.

Such has been the implementation of Article 7 of the Monogamy Law, which bans adultery and can lead to prison terms of between one month and one year and fines of between 200,000 riels and 1 million riels (US$238).

To date, no one has served any time for violating the article, and observers say that despite the international attention it garnered when it was passed, it has largely become an afterthought.

Sok Sam Oeun, director of the legal aid NGO Cambodian Defenders Project, said he could recall only one adultery case that went to trial, and his recollection of it was sketchy.

“I heard of only one case last year, and he didn’t get jail, only a suspended [sentence],” he said.

The final death knell for the crime of adultery could come early next month, when all sections of the new national penal code come into effect, he added.

“In the Monogamy Law, there are three crimes: adultery, polygamy and incest. But in the new penal code, they only mention incest and polygamy. Why only those two?” Sok Sam Oeun asked. “The new penal code does not mention adultery, but it also does not mention that the adultery law is abolished.”

Going forward, he said, anyone charged under the old Monogamy Law could offer up the defence that it is no longer in effect.

Khoeun Savady, deputy director general of the General Department for Social Development at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, acknowledged that the courts “cannot use the penal code to punish anyone charged with adultery”. But she added that prosecutions would still be permitted under the old law. “They must charge them under the Monogamy Law,” she said.

She went on to say that the law had fulfilled the objective outlined in its first article: “to protect dignity, to strengthen harmony and happiness in families, and to ensure rights and respect between a husband and wife”.

“The people wanted this, especially women,” she said. “The law responded to the constitutional law of Cambodia, which orders Cambodian people to have one wife and one husband.”

Trying Ranariddh
But Naly Pilorge, director of the rights group Licadho, countered that the law was passed with a less lofty aim in mind.

“This law was just drafted and passed to convict Ranariddh on ‘adultery’,” she said.

She was referring to Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the former first prime minster (in a power-sharing arrangement with Prime Minister Hun Sen) and head of the Funcinpec Party who was ousted as a result of factional fighting with the Cambodian People’s Party in 1997. In December 2006, he became the first person charged under the Monogamy Law after his wife, Princess Marie – from whom Ranariddh had filed for divorce a year earlier – lodged a complaint concerning his extramarital affair with ballet dancer Ouk Phalla. This development only emboldened those who criticised the law in the run-up to its passage. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy said at the time that it “was tailor-made for Prince Ranariddh”.

Ranariddh was eventually acquitted on what Sok Sam Oeun described as a technicality. “If the marriage is not registered, then it is not adultery, and custom weddings don’t have a legal standing,” he said. “The first case was for Prince Ranariddh, but Prince Ranariddh said he never registered his marriage.”

The ruling overlooked the fact that Ranariddh had found it necessary to initiate legal divorce proceedings. The divorce was finalised this past June.

Equality for women
Pung Chhiv Kek, president of the rights group Licadho, said the conclusion of the case against Ranariddh underscored “the uselessness of this law”.

“The law on adultery should not exist,” she said.

“If a couple has problems and is to the point where one of the partners is ready to send the other to jail, they might consider divorce.”

But the law has had its supporters. Pann Navy, a professional singer and actress, said in 2006 that wives “always worry about their husbands’ affairs, but previously they have had no choice to accept them – this law will change this”.

Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Mu Sochua said recently that women still lack support when it comes to adultery, and are often discouraged from filing complaints by relatives concerned about losing the financial support of the wayward husband.

“It is very difficult for a woman to file a suit because of cultural or social barriers. She will get less support, and it’s ironic because adultery is common practice,” she said.

She said she viewed the law as positive, but that it would be better still if women were afforded a greater voice in their marriages.

“It’s good to have the law,” she said, “but it’s better to have equality for women.”

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