Svay Sitha, a senior government official whose former wife is suspected of perpetrating one of Cambodia’s most notorious acid attacks against a then 15-year-old girl, believes that he is a “victim” of his ex-wife’s crime, and of the media and non-governmental organizations who investigated the case, a government spokesman confirmed.
Spokesman for the Council of Ministers Phay Siphan said that Mr Sitha, a secretary of state for the council, never intended for the attack on Tat Marina, a rising star in Cambodia’s karaoke scene who was his mistress at the time in 1999, to take place.
Mr Sitha’s comments, relayed through Mr Siphan and first made to Voice of America radio on Monday, are the first time he has publicly discussed the nearly decade-old crime, in which police, eyewitnesses and family members identified his ex-wife, Khuon Sophal, as one of the assailants who doused Ms Marina with acid that resulted in massive deformities to her face and serious injury to her head, back and arms.
“I don’t want to go too far to intrude into [Mr Sitha’s] privacy,” Mr Siphan said yesterday. “He just wants his own life to be peaceful.”
On Monday, Mr Siphan told VOA: “It was his wife who victimized him.”
On Dec 5, 1999, Ms Marina was forced to the ground and doused with more than one liter of nitric acid while feeding rice porridge to her young niece at a food stall outside Phsar Olympic in Phnom Penh. The acid consumed large swathes of her skin and hair leaving chemical burns over 40 percent of her body.
Following the assault and with the assistance of then-US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann, Ms Marina was brought to the US to receive treatment and plastic surgery. She now resides and works there with her older brother and has stated in the past that she plans on never returning to Cambodia.
When asked if Mr Sitha feels any responsibility or remorse for the violence against Ms Marina, Mr Siphan replied yesterday, “You should check with him.”
A man answering Mr Sitha’s phone remained silent when asked if he was the secretary of state yesterday. He then hung up the phone once a reporter began asking questions and subsequent calls went unanswered. Contact information for Mrs Sophal was unavailable.
Authorities issued arrest warrants for Mrs Sophal and two of her bodyguards after the attack although no one was ever arrested.
Asked to comment on the comments to VOA that Mrs Sophal had, at some stage, received a five year suspended sentence for the attack, Mr Siphan referred questions to police.
Spokesman for the Interior Ministry Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said he had no new information on the case, and Mong Mony Chakriya, a former investigating judge at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in 1999, said yesterday that he could not recall the infamous case.
Calling the attack on Ms Marina “one of the most outrageous examples of impunity in Cambodia,” human rights workers said the government should be more concerned by the lack of arrests than the troubles Mr Sitha feels as a so-called victim.
“The fact is that Khun Sophal has enjoyed freedom from arrest for 10 years—it’s very difficult to believe that this would have been possible without the support of Svay Sitha and other government officials,” Licadho Director Naly Pilorge wrote in an e-mail message yesterday.
“Rather than depicting Svay Sitha as a victim, the government should be more interested in providing justice to the real victim, Tat Marina, who suffered appalling injuries that she has to live with for the rest of her life,” Ms Pilorge continued.
Earlier this year the high-profile acid attack was examined in a documentary film called “Finding Face.”
In it Ms Marina tells of how she met Mr Sitha and became his mistress at the age of 15. When Mrs Sophal learned of the affair, she reportedly fell into a jealous rage, prompting the attack, Ms Marina told the filmmakers.
The filmmakers, a husband-and-wife team from the US, said they initially set out to shed light on the scourge of acid attacks and the “culture of impunity” that often accompanies the perpetrators. They decided to tell Ms Marina’s story after learning no one was ever arrested or prosecuted.
The documentary is scheduled to be screened Sunday at a film festival in the US state of Oregon.
The filmmakers said they intend to create a Khmer-language version of the film and make it available one day in Cambodia.
(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)