Suong city, Kompong Cham province – Seven months after the gang rape and murder of 11-year-old Chea Sovatey, Vihear Luong commune is still reeling from what villagers describe as an unthinkably brutal act. But now their confusion has been multiplied by what they see as the inscrutable machinery of the Cambodian justice system, which last week abruptly released three suspects in the crime.
The mastermind of the mid-September rape and murder, 20-year-old Tes Sompouv, had been Sovatey’s friend and neighbor for over a decade, his house separated from hers by just a thin partition. Neighbors say she called him “bong bong,” an affectionate term of respect.
Sovatey’s body was found crumpled in a cassava field, her skirt raised, her throat slashed. She had been stabbed 12 times.
Days after the crime, a group of seven young local men- most of whom were known as “gangsters,” underemployed and over fond of drinking and cruising around town- were arrested and charged with the child’s rape and murder. Three other suspects fled and are still at large.
Last week, the Kompong Cham Provincial Court quietly tried the case without informing the Sovatey’s parents, her lawyer, human rights groups or many of the suspects’ families.
Of the seven suspects, four, including Tes Sompouv, were found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison for the crime, while three others were released.
The parents didn’t know there had been a trial or that suspects in their daughter’s murder were freed until Sovatey’s mother, Hang Yeat, spotted one of the freed men in a nearby village.
“He was just sitting and chatting with people,” Ms Yeat said Tuesday.
“Have you ever heard of such a case, and in such a case have you ever heard of the parents not being called to court? My daughter died, you know? At least the law should make me understand how these things work, make me see it, make me understand why these guys were released,” she said.
Both Ms Yeat and her husband, Chea Oun, said they were in despair at the workings of the criminal justice system, and how hopelessly complex and confusing it seemed to them. They were also baffled about how the verdict was reached and how three suspects could have been set free without their knowledge.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I met them,” Mr Oun said, his eyes full of tears and fixed on the ground.
“I’m wondering about the law too, I don’t understand how it works…. I’m not going to appeal, because I’m so stupid with this stuff that I don’t know what to do.”
Mr Oun said he was also confused at how the four guilty men received sentences of only 20 years for what he called “such a bad deed.”
“To me, it should be a life sentence,” he said.
Ms Yeat and Mr Oun are not alone in their grief and alienation from the law.
In a recent report on sexual violence in Cambodia, the UK-based rights group Amnesty International found that the justice system here-male-dominated and mired in corruption-often excludes victims from the process, compounding their trauma.
“Victims are provided with very little information from their lawyers, the criminal justice system and law enforcement professionals involved in their case about the process itself,” the report said.
“They lack access to information about their case, whether the prosecutor has charged the suspected perpetrator; whether the case is going to trial anytime soon…. The frustration of victims who are not informed of the status of their case adds to their pain,” Amnesty said.
But for all the anguish of Sovatey’s parents, the families of the convicted men are nearly as frustrated by the court.
Tes Sarath, the older sister of Tes Sampouv who was convicted for being the mastermind of Sovatey’s murder, still lives just one house down from the victim’s family.
“I think my brother should have been released too, because there is no evidence,” she said. “It seems not like justice that those three guys are released while my brother is in jail. We have no idea what to think, but when the trial took place we weren’t called.”
Soy Socheat, the sister of fellow convict Soy Savin, who lives across the street, is convinced that her “very gentle and quiet” brother is innocent, because he didn’t flee in advance of his arrest.
“I heard the families of those released went to court several times,” Ms Socheat said.
“[After the crime] I urged him to run away, but he said he was gold, pure gold, and he wasn’t scared of anything,” she said.
Srean Sraon, the mother of one of the released suspects Phan Mao, is just as certain of her son’s innocence. She says she doesn’t know how the courts work either, but feels that they reached the right decision in his case.
“My son didn’t do anything, he just got involved in a drinking party [with the killers],” she said, adding that she was notified of the trial by a friendly prison guard, not court officials.
Meanwhile, trial or no trial, Sovatey’s parents are still paralyzed with sorrow.
“Every day I miss my daughter. I miss her until I feel sick,” Mr Oun said.
“I miss her, I miss her, I miss her all the time,” said his wife.