Progress in Women’s Rights Seen in Divorce Case

In the latest chapter of a divorce case that has attracted a great deal of attention over the years, the Sup­reme Court on Thursday overruled the Court of Appeal, ordering the lower court to reconsider the division of assets between former Funcinpec Secretary of State Khek Ravy and his ex-wife, You Kanikar Nina.

And while this decision upholding a woman’s right to half the couple’s assets in a divorce is not a precedent, it does send a message to the judiciary, since traditional attitudes toward women often color judges’ interpretations of the law, women’s rights advocates noted.

Mr Ravy, vice president of the Asian Football Federation and a former president of the Football Fed­eration of Cambodia, became Cam­bodia’s first convicted criminal adulterer in October 2007 under the Law on Monogamy.

He appealed against a Phnom Penh Municipal Court ruling in March 2009 that his divorce from Ms You was final and that the marital property was to be divided equally.

The Court of Appeal in February rejected the Phnom Penh court’s decision in light of arguments by Mr Ravy’s attorney, Khieu Sophal, who also represented the Football Fe­deration of Cambodia.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court’s five judges systematically reviewed those arguments, questioning lawyers of both parties for more than an hour.

“Therefore, the court decides to reject the whole decision of the Court of Appeal…[and] return the decision…back to the Court of Ap­peal in order to retry it,” Supreme Court President and presiding Judge Dith Munty said as he read the decision.

The assets in the case consist of the house on Street 75 in Daun Penh in which the couple—who married in November 1999 when he was 38 and she 29—lived during their marriage, and a plot of land in Dangkao district in Phnom Penh.

But the point of contention on Thursday had to do with Mr Ravy’s income and whether the plot of land had been sold.

His attorneys, Sao Noeun and Mr Sophal, tried to convince the court that Mr Ravy’s father, Khek Vandy, had given him $175,000 as a personal gift, and that since the house had been purchased in 2000 with money given to him rather than earned, it should not be considered a family asset.

“You two lawyers say Khek Ravy received $170,000 from his father…. But why did he still borrow money from the bank since the house was just $160,000?” asked Judge Munty, referring to a mortgage Mr Ravy had obtained. “Based on the Mar­riage Law, the property was ac­quired during married life and therefore is joint property,” he said of the house.

Closely questioned by Judge Munty, Mr Sophal failed to convince the court that the monthly sum of $16,800 Mr Ravy received from the Cambodian Shipping Corporation, a company based in Singapore, were gifts from his brother Khek Sakara, who had been that company’s chairman.

The CSC, which handled the flag-of-convenience business for Cam­bodia, came under investigation in 2002 when French authorities seized about 100 kg of cocaine on a ship the corporation had registered under the Cambodian flag for the usual fee. A few months later, CSC lost the registry contract from the Cambodian government.

“Khek Ravy received around $1,494,693 from the company, and it is proven by bank documents. How would you explain this?” Judge Munty asked Mr Sophal on Thursday.

Between 1999 and 2006, Mr Ravy made more than $1 million in consulting fees from that company, and this money is viewed by the law as income obtained during marriage, which should be divided equally between Mr Ravy and Ms You, Judge Munty said.

Mr Ravy claimed he sold the piece of land in question in 2004 to the Football Federation of Cam­bodia for $133,320 with his wife’s knowledge. But in her brief to the court, Ms You denied any knowledge of the sale. A property valuation certificate submitted to the court by Ms You showed that the land is valued at $1.7 million and that its deed still lists Mr Ravy and Ms You as owners.

The Supreme Court judges found that this asset, whose value must be reassessed, also had to be divided between Mr Ravy and Ms You ac­cording to the law.

Contacted at court Thursday and by phone afterward, Mr Ravy’s lawyers declined comment on the Supreme Court’s decision.

Mr Ravy did not attend the court hearing. Reached by telephone yesterday, he said that he did not wish to comment on what he called a private matter. His father, Mr Vandy, and brother Mr Sakara could not be reached.

“The decision of the Supreme Court is very just because it ruled on the evidence from the parties in dispute,” said Mao Samvutheary, Ms You’s attorney. “I hope that the Court of Appeal will review the case based on the law and consider the evidence.”

Ms You said Saturday that she had had a good night of sleep for the first time in months. It has been nearly five years since she filed for divorce in mid-2006.

“A lot of women helped push me along,” Ms You said. When she hesitated to contest the Court of Ap­peal’s decision, she said they had told her: “This is your right…. If you don’t fight for your rights, it’s going to make it harder for others to fight for their rights.”

Ms You has been a consultant on women’s and family issues for international organizations over the years, and the fact that women are often treated as second-class citizens in Cambodia was one more reason that kept her going, she said.

Koeut Meak Pheaktra, a wo­men’s affairs monitoring officer for rights group Licadho who attended the hearing, said Licadho had been following the case closely to see how courts applied the law.

“There is this tradition in Cam­bodia that the woman is inferior to the man,” Licadho President Pung Chhiv Kek said Friday. “There is some sort of code of conduct for wo­­men. A mother will tell her daugh­ter not to consider herself the equal of her husband, and if he beats or insults her or has an affair, that she has to endure. This is why women are ready to make many concessions.”

Improvements have been made regarding women’s rights, but inequality is still often reflected in court, Ms Kek said. For instance, she said, during the two mandatory reconciliation sessions dictated by the divorce law, judges tend to put more pressure on women than on men to persuade them to stay in the marriage. Moreover, men often get away with selling property without their wives’ consent and keep the money for themselves in the di­vorce, she noted.

This is why a ruling such as Thursday’s, which recognizes a woman’s legal rights to her share of the couple’s assets, is so encouraging, she said.

The date for the second hearing of Mr Ravy and Ms You’s case at the Court of Appeal remains to be determined.

 

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