The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday convicted a woman of involuntary manslaughter in the death of her adoptive daughter and sentenced her to two years in prison, despite strong evidence that prosecutors say showed the woman beat the child to death.
Keo Soly is a wealthy moneylender who had originally accepted the child as collateral for a small loan.
The surprise decision came after Judge Hing Thearith changed the charge against Kea Soly from voluntary manslaughter to involuntary manslaughter—a charge that carries a much lighter sentence—during the last five minutes of the trial.
“The mother celebrated two birthdays for [Kea Solydey] and she took the girl to a doctor for vaccinations when the baby was sick—this shows that the mother never intended to kill the child,” Hing Thearith said while delivering the verdict.
According to the Untac code, involuntary manslaughter is a misdemeanor resulting from carelessness, negligence or inattention, without wish to cause bodily harm. Voluntary manslaughter is a felony in which the victim’s death results from intention to kill without aggravating circumstances such as premeditation.
Hing Thearith said 2-year-old Kea Solydey died on Dec 26 after she fell down a flight of stairs and that the bruises and scratches on the child’s body were not caused by the mother because they were much smaller than a human hand.
He conceded that Kea Soly most likely beat the child, “but it was not so serious.” He chastised the mother for not installing bars on the staircase.
Testimony from various witnesses for the prosecution, however, revealed a history of alleged abuse and neglect by the mother.
During the two-hour trial on Thursday morning, three neighbors testified that they saw Kea Soly beat Kea Solydey on several occasions.
The strongest testimony came from Bou Kim Yoeun, who was paid by the accused to serve as the child’s nanny and sole caregiver for more than 12 months. After Bou Kim Yoeun returned the child to Kea Solydey, she visited the child frequently and saw bruises and scratches on the child’s body at least six times, the nanny testified.
Kea Solydey died two months after being returned to Kea Soly’s care.
Bou Kim Yoeun took photographs of Kea Solydey after her body had been taken to a pagoda. The photos, which were introduced as evidence in the trial, showed that Kea Solydey suffered from severe injuries to the head and deep lacerations and scratches on her right side, fingers and buttocks.
While no official conclusions were drawn from the photos, the prosecution said the injuries appeared to be consistent with abuse rather than falling down stairs or falling from a balcony, as was first reported.
In addition, an autopsy report from Kantha Bopha II hospital, where Kea Soly took the child the night she died, showed the child sustained two skull fractures that were likely caused by long-term abuse, the prosecution stated.
“I never tortured the baby,” Kea Soly said during the trial. On the night of the incident, “I heard the sound and I ran to see what happened—I never saw with my own eyes that the girl fell from the stairs, but she fell down them often.”
Two witnesses testified on behalf of Kea Soly: Her husband and a woman who sold her medicine. Both said they did not see Kea Solydey fall down the stairs or get beaten by her mother.
Yim Sotary, the lawyer representing the interests of the victim, said he will appeal the verdict.
“The decision is very unjust for the baby,” he said.
Human rights observers agreed. “We are very disappointed that the court would change the charges and not recognize the evidence against the accused,” said Naly Pilorge, deputy director of the human rights group Licadho.