It's June 8, the day before his Appeal Court verdict, and Bart Lauwaert sits at a
gray stone table outside the Phnom Penh Central Police Station holding cells. A few
meters away, behind a barbed wire fence, Khmer prisoners fill out their exercise
time in a small, grimy yard. Some jog in circles or stretch their limbs while others
sit in the shade, their eyes glazed as they presumably imagine themselves somewhere,
Bart "Lucky" Lauwaert is escorted from the Appeal Court in Phnom Penh on June 1. At the hearing nine witnesses recanted earlier testimony that helped sentence Lauweart, an Australian citizen, to 20 years in Siem Reap Prison on charges of debauchery - having sexual relations with girls as young as 14. Despite the change in testimony, the Appeals Court announced on June 9 that his appeal was denied.
In the shade of an overgrown tree, Lauwaert rests his hands neatly on the table in
front of him. He occasionally leafs through the sheaf of papers he has brought with
him to point something out or clarify a detail. A small, blonde man in a short-sleeved
shirt and thin black glasses, he has clearly taken care to maintain a neat appearance.
Even after more than three years in Siem Reap prison he looks surprisingly well,
and younger than his 39 years.
'Victim of corruption'
Speaking quickly and earnestly in a clipped Belgian accent, he repeats that he is
the victim of corruption; that he is innocent of the pedophilia charges that have
put him where he is today. Lauwaert, widely known as "Lucky," is pessimistic
about his chances of acquittal.
"Personally, I think this case is highly political," Lauwaert tells the
Post. "Even though the verdict has not been made yet, I think I will probably
not get out."
The following day, his prediction is proven true, and the Appeal Court upholds the
guilty verdict. Afterwards, Lauwaert's lawyer, Dy Borima, calls the verdict "unjust,"
and says his client will appeal to the Supreme Court.
Born in Belgium, Lauwaert has been an Australian citizen since he was 21. In July
2002, ten girls aged between 14 and 18 accused him and his former Siem Reap housemate
Clint Betterridge, also Australian, of sexual assault. After the accusations, all
ten girls were put into the care of the Siem Reap branch of the Cambodian Women's
Crisis Center (CWCC), a local NGO that provides shelter and counseling to women and
On January 29, 2003, Lauwaert and Betterridge were convicted in the Siem Reap Provincial
Court of the crime of debauchery.
Article 8 of the Suppression of the Kidnapping, Trafficking and Exploitation of Human
Persons Law (1996) defines debauchery as acts on a minor person below 15 years old
even if there is consent.
Lauwaert was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Three days before the trial Betterridge
fled the country, after the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh issued him a passport
to replace the one confiscated by Cambodian authorities. He was tried in absentia,
and sentenced to 10 years. He was arrested and jailed in Australia shortly after
But 18 months after the trial, nine of the ten accusers changed their story. In an
open letter to Prime Minister Hun Sen and King Norodom Sihamoni, they stated that
they had been pressured by CWCC into falsely accusing Lauwaert and Betterridge. They
said they had been held at the CWCC shelter against their will, and told they would
be sent to prison if they didn't testify against them. The letter was marked with
In a separate, individual retraction, one of the accusers, Kheoun Savy, wrote: "CWCC
kidnap me and my sister. Force me to complain about Lucky. Promise money to my mother
and say if I do not do as they say they will put me and my family in the prison."
Now 18, Savy testified to Lauwaert's innocence at his June 1 appeal hearing, and
compared him to a Buddhist monk, according to a news report.
According to Oung Chanthol, executive director of CWCC, the ten victims filed a complaint
with the police before her organization became involved, so it would have been impossible
for CWCC to have coerced them. She adds that nobody was detained against their will.
"Ten girls stayed with us, some for six months and some for less than six months,"
says Chanthol. "The girls needed psychological and medical care, and in our
shelter we provide counseling, legal advice also. Each girl spent four to five days
at home every two weeks, and relatives came to visit them in the shelter."
Chanthol says there have been reports that the nine girls who recanted were influenced
by an unknown woman who visited them in Siem Reap after the first trial. The woman
reportedly told them that CWCC had been given $100,000 to pass on to them by Lauwaert's
mother, but it was keeping the money for itself. In a press release on June 13, Chanthol
called for an investigation into the actions of the CWCC by both Cambodian and Australian
"CWCC has never had and still has nothing to hide in this case," she said.
Chanthol has headed CWCC since its inception in 1997, and in 2001 won the internationally
respected Magsaysay Award for emerging Asian leaders.
Investigation into CWCC
The Australian government announced on June 13 it would launch an investigation into
whether or not CWCC receives funding from AusAID. Chanthol told the Post that AusAID
staff had gone to the CWCC office to obtain a copy of a 1997 funding agreement between
the two parties.
Only hours after Lauwaert's guilty verdict was handed down by judge Saly Theara on
June 9, Betterridge was released from prison in Australia, on the orders of Australian
Justice Minister Chris Ellison.
According to a report in the Weekend Australian, in light of the nine women's withdrawal
of allegations against Lauwaert and Betterridge, Ellison ordered Betterridge's release,
rejecting Cambodia's demand for extradition, saying Betterridge could not be assured
of justice in Cambodia and could face torture.
Betterridge is now a free man.
Chanthol said she was surprised the Australian authorities had released Betteridge.
"The Australian government did not contact CWCC yet or look at police evidence,"
she said. "I think they should have done more to find out what happened before
the decision was made to release."
The day before Lauwaert's verdict, Australian Embassy spokesman Guy Ruediger told
the Post the Australian Embassy had sought to ensure Lauwaert received his full rights
under fair and transparent legal proceedings. In response to Lauwaert's assertion
that embassy officials had met privately with the Appeal Court judges a day before
the appeal began, he said "No comment."
Prior to Lauwaert's latest appeal came the failed appeal of Graham Cleghorn, another
foreigner living in Siem Reap who claimed that judges, police and CWCC staff engineered
false accusations against him.
Cleghorn, 59, a New Zealander, was tried and convicted in February 2004 for the rape
of five teenage girls. The allegations of corruption surrounding his conviction parallel
the later trials of Lauwaert and Betterridge.
Cleghorn is currently in Prey Sar prison. His case goes to the Supreme Court in July,
where he will be represented by Dy Borima, the same lawyer who acts for Lauwaert.
According to Cleghorn's supporters, Judge Tan Senarong, who presided over his original
trial, colluded with his sister, a prominent CWCC member, to put Cleghorn in prison
so he could be blackmailed for valuable land he owned near Angkor Wat.
Lauwaert makes similar claims. He also says court officials tried to extort $70,000
from him when he was taken into custody, and he says CWCC instigated the entire investigation.
Trend among NGOs to 'scapegoat foreigners'
"Two girls [who worked as his cleaners] were against their will pushed into
a car, and taken to the police station, with a CWCC representative, and kept till
eleven o'clock at night," he says. "And they were told if they don't file
a complaint against me they will never see their parents again, and be sent to prison."
As far as Lauwaert is concerned, he and Betterridge are victims of a trend among
NGOs to scapegoat foreigners for blackmailing purposes, and to collect foreign aid.
"They play on the guilt of foreign donors, saying 'Your citizens come to our
country, prey on our people: now we want more money to help our NGOs,'" he says.
"But the real child abuse, 99.9 percent happens in Khmer villages. Family members,
older boys, neighbors, whatever. But say you arrest somebody, a Cambodian, who has
raped a child, you're not going to get any money."
On June 6, Pursat man Chan Prampey was sentenced to 15 years in prison for the rape
of a 4-year-old girl. Ngeth Theavy, coordinator for rights group ADHOC, described
the sentence as minimal, saying the law specifies a prison term of 15 to 20 years
for child sex crimes.
On the subject of CWCC, Lauwaert's fury penetrates his mild exterior.
"They are just a man-hating witch hunt," he says. "They really hate
men, it's incredible. I want to pull the hairs out of my head."
Chanthol is impassive about the Lauwaert verdict.
"It's not my issue," she says. "I'm not happy, not anything. I just
see that the state is committed to its obligation to protect children."
However she says she is very disappointed that the girls have said CWCC told them
And what about Kheoun Savy, who says CWCC threatened and detained her?
"Why the first time did she say that Bart raped her, but now she turns her word?"
Chanthol says. "I don't know, only she knows the truth whether he is a monk
or he is her abuser."