The 9-year-old girl from Prey Veng said she can’t remember the details from the first time her uncle raped her.
“I just remember that on that day at around 2 pm…he pulled me into his bedroom,” said the girl in a statement to human rights workers earlier this year.
She did, however, remember her uncle, jeweler Pao Toung, raping her on three more occasions last November when her mother was away from home, according to her statement.
And she said her sister, 11, suffered the same fate with the same man. Soon after, police were notified and Pao Toung was arrested and charged with rape.
Now several months later, a Prey Veng court on Tuesday acquitted Pao Toung of the charges, citing a lack of evidence. The decision has drawn harsh criticism not only from human rights workers but also from the court’s investigating judge.
Critics said the case highlights both the difficulty of securing rape convictions in Cambodian courts and the increasing incidence of sex crimes against children across the country.
Chanthol Oung, director of the Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center, said court officials do not treat rape as a serious crime that merits criminal sentences. While many rape cases go unreported, she said those that go as far as the police are usually settled quietly out of court with money.
“It is very difficult to prosecute a rape case,” Chanthol Oung said. “The [courts] always say there is a lack of evidence….The courts are not sensitive to this issue.”
In one recent case in Phnom Penh, she said, authorities said they did not believe a girl was raped because she became pregnant after the attack.
The officials reasoned the girl must have had sex many times with her attacker to have become pregnant, Chanthol Oung said.
The double-rape case in Prey Veng’s provincial court did not suffer from a lack of evidence, maintained Svay Sisarouth, deputy court director and the investigating judge in the case.
“I investigated and found enough evidence to prove the accused really raped the two girls. But I don’t know what evidence the judge took as proof that the man was innocent,” Svay Sisarouth said. “My investigation found the suspect’s wife acted as an accomplice. His wife tried to hire a young boy to take responsibility for the rapes.”
A human rights worker with Human Rights Vigilance of Cambodia said medical tests proved the two girls had been raped.
Judge Thong Saran, who presided in the case, could not be reached for comment this week.
The decision is being appealed by the court’s deputy prosecutor, Muong Sarin, officials said. Defendant Pao Toung is still in police custody and will not be released until after the appeal hearing.
Children’s rights organizations have long criticized the lack of punishment meted out to foreigners, especially Westerners, convicted of sex crimes against children in Cambodia.
Organizations are also saying child exploitation is on the increase in Cambodia and being committed more and more by Asians.
International law enforcement expert Christian Guth heads a project to establish a police task force in Cambodia to combat sexual crimes against children. He said a large part of his work involves educating authorities that sex with children is a serious crime.
The project, which is supported by the UN and several NGOs, aims to improve authorities’ ability to investigate and prosecute cases of sexual exploitation and trafficking of children.
Generally, pedophilia in Cambodia is mostly thought of in terms of Western men who come to Cambodia to sleep with young boys and girls. However, Westerners may only account for between 10 and 20 percent of sexual offenses against children in Cambodia, Guth said. “Most of the prostitution involving children is not with Westerners. It is Chinese, Cambodian and other Asian nationals,” he said.
Chanthol Oung said in Cambodian society some men believe having sex with children is good for their health. “They think it makes them look younger and feel more energetic,” she said.
What’s worse, advocates note, is that some of the children are violated by public figures.
One monitoring officer with Afisep, which rehabilitates victims of Cambodia’s sex trade, recently said at least 20 percent of the 500 sex workers referred to the agency each year say they entered the sex trade when they were sold as virgins to high-ranking officials and powerful businessmen.