Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Paying a steep price for love

Paying a steep price for love

Paying a steep price for love

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Phlong Srey Rann, 20, shuffled across the dusty prison grounds in her blue and white prison garb early yesterday morning as though she had resigned herself to spending the next four and a half years behind bars for having sex with her girlfriend.

Photo Supplied/Phnom Penh Post
Female inmates in 2009 behind a fence at the women’s correctional facility at Prey Sar prison, where Phlong Srey Rann is being held.

She slouched in the wooden chair provided for her and displayed little emotion as she discussed the events that led to her imprisonment. During a visit on December 28, she had appeared hopeful that her ordeal was nearing an end.

Yesterday, however, the former factory worker expressed little hope that she would be released, although she continued to assert her innocence, insisting that the case against her had been concocted by her girlfriend’s family, who would not tolerate their daughter’s same-sex relationship.

“On August 10, 2011, [her girlfriend’s] brother filed a complaint that I was illegally detaining her. The police then arrested me and accused me of illegal detention and human trafficking,” Phlong Srey Rann explained.

In November, a judge convicted her of having sexual intercourse with a minor and sentenced her to five years in prison.

The “minor” involved was a co-worker she had met at a shoe factory in Kandal province. They had been together for more than a year.

“I told police that I was not [involved in] human trafficking and that we loved each other. I don’t understand why her brother filed a lawsuit against me,” Phlong Srey Rann said.

Letters between the two support these claims. One from her girlfriend identifies an older brother as the source of the problem. “My brother is forcing me to stop having a relationship with you, but I have to overcome it . . . you are the person whom I love so much,” the hand-written letter reads.

Phlong Srey Rann said it was news to her that her girlfriend was under age. Her girlfriend’s family had provided falsified documents to the court identifying their daughter as only 14 years old, she said.

Those documents had led to her conviction.

“My girlfriend’s family lied to the court when they said she was only 14 years old,” Phlong Srey Rann said.

Cambodian labour law stipulates that factory workers must be 18 or older, which would mean that her girlfriend had been working in the factory since she was 13.

Ying Dong Shoes, a member of the Garment Manufacturers’ Association of Cambodia, insisted, however, that it strictly adhered to labour laws.

Lei Shi Ken, an administration official at the factory, told the Post yesterday the factory “only hires girls that are 18 and above” and a birth certificate and identification card was required for each employee.

Labour ministry officials frequently monitored the factory and had never made complaints, he said.

Copies of Phlong Srey Rann’s girlfriend’s birth certificate and family book submitted to the factory and obtained by the Post state that she was born on March 9, 1992, which would make her 19 at the time of Phlong Srey Rann’s arrest.

Rights workers and members of Cambodia’s nascent gay community say the case is simply an example of homophobia. Moreover, they say, the country’s weak judicial system has been used by an angry family to break apart a relationship between two young women.

Sokly Hem, the sexual orientation and gender identity project co-ordinator at the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, yesterday called on the court “to bring justice” to Phlong Srey Rann.

“She should not be punished for having a same-sex relationship,” he said, urging officials to “conduct a full and proper investigation”.

Phlong Srey Rann plans to appeal the court’s decision, but at this point has no lawyer.

She said she worried most about her family, who depended on her monthly wage of US$61. “I have to look after and support my family. I am the sole supporter . . . we are so poor,” she said.

Srey Rann’s father, a former soldier, echoed these concerns.

“Every day we depend on this daughter to support our family because she works in the factory,” Phlong Sokha said outside the prison in late December. His wife said she worried more about her daughter. “She is so sad in prison. I pity her so much,” she said.

Both parents appeared distraught, bewildered, frightened and unsure of what to do.

Lim Matharon, the presiding judge in the case, could not be reached for comment.

Chan Reasey Pheak, Phlong Srey Rann’s court-appointed lawyer, said she was no longer involved in the case and refused to comment.

Phlong Srey Rann’s girlfriend had been taken back to her village in Kampot by her family, people familiar with the case said. She was confined to her parents’ home and her mobile phone has been taken from her, they said.

Still, a letter slipped through. “I love only you. I will never love other. If my family does not love you, I will still love you forever.” 

WITH ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CASSANDRA YEAP AND VINCENT MACISAAC

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