Two senior Funcinpec officials, a senator and a lawmaker, have defended their decision to testify in the US last month as character witnesses for convicted pedophile Michael Pepe.
A retired US Marine captain, 54-year-old Pepe was convicted on May 29 of sex crimes against Cambodian children, making him eligible for a maximum jail sentence of more than 200 years.
Federal prosecutors in Los Angeles convicted Pepe on seven counts and said testimony and physical evidence in the three-week trial showed Pepe had drugged, bound, beaten and raped his victims, who ranged in age from 9 to 12 years old. Pepe was deported from Cambodia in 2006 and prosecuted under the US Protect Act, which allows for the prosecution of Americans who commit sex crimes against children overseas.
Funcinpec Senator Ung Huot, who was formerly first prime minister following the 1997 factional fighting, testified as a character witness for Pepe at the trial in the US state of California. On Wednesday, Ung Huot insisted that, although unaware of the US court’s guilty verdict, Pepe was innocent in his book.
“I don’t believe that. I still think [Pepe’s] a good man. He would not do such a thing,” the senator said by telephone, adding that he had known Pepe for three or four years and had dined with him the night before his arrest.
Pepe, a part-time Pannasastra University professor of management from 2003 to 2005, was arrested in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kok district in June 2006 following an investigation by Cambodian police, an international child protection organization and US agents of the State Department, Homeland Security and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“The [US court] judgment doesn’t mean that it’s correct. There are mistrials all over the world—not just in Cambodia,” Ung Huot said, adding that he believed that Pepe was framed “by someone who has interest in that.”
Funcinpec lawmaker Khieu San, who also testified in Los Angeles on behalf of Pepe, said that he too was unaware of the guilty verdict.
“I just spoke under my oath dealing with what Pepe had done for our Cambodian nation,” Khieu San said during an interview at the National Assembly on June 5—two days after he returned from giving testimony in the case.
Pepe had provided school supplies to children in Kandal province and “helped more than 10,000 Cambodian students and monks,” Khieu San said.
Khieu San declined to comment as to whether he thought Pepe to be innocent or guilty of sex crimes.
“I have never known or been aware of anything dealing with his activities in his sex crime conviction,” he said, adding that as a government official, he was compelled to see that justice was done.
“I am really proud that I am a Funcinpec lawmaker who dared to testify for the court of the United States,” he said. “Only Funcinpec and the CPP would do that.”
Khieu San also said that he told the US court that, on behalf of the mothers of Pepe’s victims, he would investigate the child protection NGOs involved in the case, including the US-based International Justice Mission.
Khieu San said that the organizations involved in the investigation had illegally detained the children and brought them to the US without consent from their parents.
An IJM official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that the parents of the seven victims were kept from their children because they are suspected of facilitating Pepe’s abuse.
“The only reason the mothers were not involved is because they are under investigation for being complicit,” he said. “There were attempts by Pepe to bribe them to withdraw their accusations.”
As government officials, Ung Huot and Khieu San’s support of Pepe flies in the face of Cambodia’s commitment to halt sexual predators, the IJM official said. “I don’t understand that,” he added.
Cambodian Catholic priest Un Son, who also testified on behalf of Pepe, and who also didn’t know about the guilty verdict, said Wednesday that Pepe used to visit his church in Phnom Penh.
“Pepe wanted to learn exactly about our program in providing training for young people, so I brought him to visit students studying in Svay Pak,” he said, referring to a school in the area that became internationally infamous as a brothel village and haven for pedophiles.
“I also told the court that in the period I knew Pepe, he was a kind-hearted guy who had done great work in helping poor students,” he said. “I am really sorrowful that he is involved in such terrible crimes.”
Bangkok-based ICE Special Agent Gary Phillips agreed to be interviewed for this story following clearance from Washington, but said he first needed permission from the US Embassy in Phnom Penh. US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle said Wednesday that he would answer questions instead.
“Pepe’s conviction was a direct result of the extraordinary cooperation between American and Cambodian law enforcement officials, including US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the US State Department’s Diplomatic Security, and the Cambodian National Police,” Daigle wrote by e-mail Wednesday.
“Khieu San testified in his capacity as a private citizen based on a personal relationship with the defendant. He did not testify as an official representative of the Royal Government of Cambodia,” he added. “We fully expect that the Royal Government of Cambodia will continue its sustained attention to the issue of trafficking in persons.”