Education Minister Hang Chuon Naron on Wednesday defended the decision not to expel a senior official from the ministry after he was arrested for sexually assaulting his interpreter during a visit to South Korea in May, saying the crime was not serious—“not rape.”
Mr. Chuon Naron said the ministry kept quiet about the arrest of Kry Seang Long, then the director of its vocational orientation department, in order to avoid a lawsuit for damaging the official’s reputation.
“He committed something like harassment, but it’s not rape…not a criminal, but a civil, offence,” Mr. Chuon Naron said in an interview at his office.
“If he committed rape or [something] very serious according to the court…then we would fire him,” he said, adding that Mr. Seang Long had been on leave and would be given a new position at the ministry.
“He continues to be staff, but not anymore the director.”
Mr. Seang Long was arrested in Seoul in late May for sexually assaulting his South Korean interpreter after representing Cambodia at the 2016 Asean+3 HRD Forum, South Korean police said in June.
The Education Ministry then paid more than $12,000 in fines and legal fees to secure his release from a detention center in Seoul on June 8, according to a letter from Cambodia’s ambassador to South Korea, Long Dimanche, to Foreign Affairs Minister Prak Sokhonn.
But the Education Ministry did not publicly acknowledge the case until June 23—the day an article about the arrest was published in The Cambodia Daily—claiming that Mr. Seang Long had been made to repay the money and stripped of his position as department director.
Mr. Chuon Naron said on Wednesday that the ministry’s silence was necessary to protect itself.
“If I…make an announcement that, ‘Okay, Mr. Kry Seang Long was involved in sexual harassment,’” and investigators cannot “find the evidence or proof, then Mr. Kry Seang Long can sue the ministry for…damag[ing] his reputation,” he said.
Mr. Chuon Naron said that because South Korean police and court officials did not contact the ministry about the case it could not be sure that Mr. Seang Long was guilty.
Any further investigation into the case was the responsibility of the Justice Ministry, he added, as the Education Ministry had followed protocol by demoting him.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin could not be reached on Wednesday.
Opposition officials and women’s rights advocates said that contrary to Mr. Chuon Naron’s claim, Mr. Seang Long’s case was indeed serious—and had been handled poorly.
“I find that it is really appalling because this is a serious act,” Thida Khus, the head of women’s rights group Silaka, said of Mr. Chuon Naron’s response to the case—and others like it.
“The ministry is responsible for all of these actions, all of these crimes, and if they don’t take it seriously, their officials can continue doing it,” she said.
Sarah Knibbs, deputy country representative of U.N. Women, said that if an assault case is not properly investigated, it “can send out the message that sexual abuse is not taken seriously which is at odds with the protections afforded by Cambodian law.”
“Tolerating violence at any level of society is never acceptable. The law and policy framework in Cambodia is clear on this,” she said in an email.
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay, a former educator himself, said that firing Mr. Leang Song was the “moral obligation” of his superiors.
“This person is working at the Ministry of Education. He has set a very bad example for the whole education system,” he said. “They are accepting his behavior and it will set a bad example to the younger generation.”