After more than four years of relentless campaigning to bring an abusive teacher to justice, a group of Kampong Chhnang students were vindicated yesterday as the Provincial Court found the educator guilty of sexually abusing four girls and sentenced him in absentia to five years in prison.
About 10 students, the victims among them, cried when they heard the verdict after a tense trial. It was a moment many expected would never come.
A Post investigation last year revealed that schoolteacher Kem Chan Chhen had used his position of power and a series of threats to conceal his classroom abuse.
When the family of one of the victims, Thavery*, came forward with allegations of abuse, Chan Chhen was moved within the Provincial Education Department, whose head, Pich Sambo, fiercely defended him.
Chan Chhen was protected for years by the inaction of the authorities. An initial court case was suspended in 2013 due to an “absence of crime” and was further hindered by a general disbelief in the testimony of children. Police also failed to detain the suspect despite two court orders for his arrest.
In January this year, the provincial governor launched an extrajudicial investigation into the case, at the abuser’s request.
Chan Chhen, his lawyers claimed yesterday, was not in court because he had fled.
The court handed him the maximum five-year-sentence under Article 248 of the Cambodian Criminal Code and required him to pay 10 million riel ($2,500) to the state and to Thavery, as well as 3 million riel ($750) to each of his three other victims.
Judge Ham Mengse issued a new warrant for his arrest.
Through tears, Thavery, now 18, thanked the court for finding justice.
“This is enough for me,” she said.
“When I saw the confrontation between the judge and prosecutor and lawyers, I did not think I would win the case. But at the end of the trial, the court gives us justice – I do not know what to say.”
Her sentiment was echoed by other victims and their family members outside the courtroom.
“The punishment fits the crime,” said Sopheap*, the father of the only one of the four victims who remained in school. Two other girls dropped out after they were abused and migrated to Thailand for work.
According to a written statement from one of those victims, Chan Chhen “hugged and kissed” her “and played with my breasts”.
“From that time I started to be careful,” she wrote, adding that her teacher whispered in her ear during class, threatening that she would not pass to the next grade if she told anyone.
One of Chan Chhen’s lawyers, Chhuon Lady, quizzed the youngest victim on the nature of the abuse, saying there was a difference between unintentionally grazing a breast and groping, squeezing or pinching it.
He asked her to demonstrate on a mango, drawing the ire of Provincial Deputy Prosecutor Ty Munin.
“You should not have to explain these things and what you say makes the victim [feel devalued] . . . please, stop questioning her about squeezing,” he said.
Five students testified they had seen their teacher hug, kiss and grope Thavery during class, but Director Ouk Seth claimed to have known nothing of the assaults on his school grounds.
When the judge questioned why students did not come forward earlier, some – including one who claimed to have video evidence they deleted after threats from Chan Chhen – said they were scared.
Defence counsel Lady urged for the charges to be dropped. “If he wanted rape her, he would take her to jungle or guesthouse, but why would he do it at the school? . . . He is a teacher and knowledgeable person who could not commit this action with students in the class.”
Fellow defence lawyer Kea Eav stressed the case “did not leave any scars or injuries”, to which Prosecutor Munin responded: “This action has no scar, but it affects the heart of the victims.”
The abuse had left a “dark shadow” over the girls, all aged between 11 and 14 at the time, that would remain for decades to come, he said.
Defence lawyer Eav told reporters Chan Chhen and his wife – who attended the trial with their months-old baby in her arms – would appeal.
“This decision is not right, and most importantly, this is a small thing and he was an immoral teacher who took advantage of students through hugging, putting his arm around students, touching them and patting their heads,” he said.
“I think this is immoral but this does not break the law.”
Aimyleen Gabriel, technical manager for child protection at World Vision, said the court decision was a “welcome development” and showed the government was “taking its responsibility seriously to end all forms of violence in schools”.
“It is important to note that in this case, abuse ended because one girl came out bravely to report the incident and then the rest followed,” she said, adding it was “equally important” that the parents believed and supported their children.
*Names have been changed to protect identities.