5 Months Later, Still No Arrests in Tat Marina Acid Attack

So Him doesn’t know where his sister Khoun Sophal is, but he said Thursday he hopes she turns up soon. Khoun Sophal is the wife of high government official Svay Sitha and the prime suspect in the notorious acid attack on karaoke singer Tat Marina last Dec 5.

“For me, I want her to come back, because I have to get back to my own family,’’ said So Him, who has left his farm in Kom­pong Thom to help Svay Sitha care for their four children.

Standing in Svay Sitha’s driveway on Street 546, a rutted dirt road dotted with luxurious new homes, a tired-looking So Him said he has not seen his sister since the news broke about the acid attack. Neighbors said they haven’t seen her either.

Police have said Khoun Sophal poured more than a liter of nitric acid over the back of Tat Marina’s head, burning her ears, most of her hair, and great swathes of skin on her neck, shoulders and back.

They have said Khoun Sophal was jealous of the 16-year-old’s affair with Svay Sitha, an undersecretary for the Council of Ministers and secretary-general of the government’s military demobilization committee. Wit­nesses saw a woman flee with several bodyguards, leaving behind a screaming girl and a car belonging to Svay Sitha.

So many people saw the attack, in broad daylight near the Oly­mpic Market, that an arrest seem­ed imminent. But she was never arrested. She hasn’t been heard from since.

“I don’t know where she is,’’ So Him repeated wearily.

He’s got company. People who don’t know where she is include the police, the prosecutors, court officials—just about anyone you ask. Lek Vannak, Phnom Penh’s judiciary police chief, said his officers are still looking for her, but “our investigation has come to a dead [end], because we can find her nowhere.’’

Other law enforcement officials were quick to point out it wasn’t their job to arrest Khoun Sophal.

‘’If we [were] in charge of this case and doing the investigation, we would know where she is,’’ said Sim Hong, deputy commander for the city’s military police.

He said she had better be hidden well, because the statute of limitations on the crime is 10 years, and no criminal can hide that long, he said.

Some offer theories: She’s in Vietnam. Singapore. Abroad, somewhere. In a high official’s house in Phnom Penh.

Plenty of people know where Tat Marina is: recuperating in a Shriner’s hospital in the US state of Massachusetts, half a world away from Cambodia’s notorious “culture of impunity.’’ She found her way there with the help of her brother, Tat Sequindo, a US citizen, and the US Embassy.

Her family in Cambodia had been reluctant to push for prosecution, saying that Svay Sitha had agreed to pay for Tat Marina’s medical care, to “feed her forever.’’ But her medical care is now being provided. And in recent weeks, the family says, the relationship has fallen apart. “She told me, ‘It is over,’’’ her father, Tat Sokhon, said.

So Tat Marina has drawn up a complaint to be filed with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. “Please, help find justice for me, in accordance with the law,’’ reads a copy of the complaint provided by relatives.

The family says Tat Sequindo filed the complaint through the Cambodian Embassy in Wash­ington, asking that it be forwarded to the municipal court in Phnom Penh. Human rights activists say it’s high time, and that the delays in the case have been unconscionable.

“It was such a terrible crime,’’ said Kek Galabru, founder of the human rights group Licadho. “For a crime like that, there should be no statute of limitations….The perpetrator of this crime should be punished.’’

Oddly, no one can seem to find the complaint. The Cambodian Embassy did not respond to requests for information. Police, prosecutors and court officials here say they haven’t seen it.

If it’s coming through diplomatic channels, it should turn up at the Foreign Ministry. Not so far, said Sar Sambath, the ministry’s director for the Americas.

“I have not received any complaint or letter. Where is the complaint?’’

The high-profile attack sparked a series of copycat crimes and focused public attention on the phenomenon of powerful, wealthy men taking mistresses or “second wives.’’

Last fall, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s wife, Bun Rany, was ac­cused of orchestrating the death of actress Piseth Peaklica under similar circumstances—a charge the premier and his wife vehemently deny. The popular traditional dancer and movie star was gunned down near the O’Russei Market on July 6. An article in the French magazine L’Express in October claimed that Bun Rany, jealous that Hun Sen was having an affair with Piseth Peaklica, ordered her killed.

Hun Sen and his wife say opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who often visits France, planted the false accusations to discredit them.

Bun Rany said her husband has been faithful during their 24-year marriage.

No one has been arrested in that case either.

By Jody McPhillips, Kay Kimsong and Thet Sambath


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