Ex-wife of top government official convicted and sentenced in Tat Marina case
Court documents released yesterday offer the first documented proof that the ex-wife of a top government official was convicted, in absentia, for a notorious 1999 acid attack on a then-15-year-old girl.
The Council of Ministers released the records on the heels of a newspaper article that appeared in The Cambodia Daily citing critics of the government’s response to acid crimes to date. It also came just ahead of today’s debate at the National Assembly on a draft acid law that proposes to mete out stiff sentences for such crimes.
According to the April 25, 2001, decision, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Khoun Sophal, the former wife of Council of Ministers Secretary of State Svay Sitha, in absentia, for the attack on Tat Marina, who was Mr Sitha’s mistress at the time.
Though the sentence was handed down, according to the belatedly released decade-old court documents, Ms Sophal never saw the inside of a prison.
The court, it said, “convicts Khoun Sophal, 41, to one year in jail, and this jail term is suspended with a term of five years’ probation starting from today’s announcement for the premeditated attack on December 5, 1999.”
On that day, Ms Marina was feeding her 3-year-old niece rice porridge at a food stall next to Phnom Penh’s Phsar Olympic when Ms Sophal and accomplices forced her to the ground and doused her with more than one liter of nitric acid.
The highly corrosive acid consumed the skin on Ms Marina’s face, ears and hair along with swaths of her neck, shoulders and back. The chemicals left more than 40 percent of her body burned and scarred, and doctors at that time believed that she might not survive the attack.
Authorities issued arrest warrants for Ms Sophal and two of her bodyguards though none of them were ever arrested, and the case apparently lay dormant for a decade with many police officials unwilling to talk about the incident.
However, in a 2009 radio interview with Voice of America ahead of the release of a film in the US about Ms Marina’s attack, Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Ms Sophal had received a five-year suspended sentence for the attack. He also conveyed Mr Sitha’s feelings that he was a “victim” of his wife’s attack on Ms Marina.
But Mr Siphan subsequently declined to repeat the length of the prison sentence reportedly meted out to Mr Sitha’s former wife, and referred questions to police. At that time, police and court officials said either that they had no such information or could not remember the case of Ms Marina.
National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith said yesterday that he recalled the case but still had no news on Khoun Sophal.
Mr Sitha was in Singapore yesterday and unavailable for comment.
Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua, a former Women’s Affairs minister, said the light sentence handed out for the attack, on top of Ms Sophal’s absence from her trial, only added to a culture of impunity for the country’s well-connected.
“[Ms Marina] had to have her ear cut off and get a new face…. This is 100 percent injustice and encourages others to follow” the perpetrators’ example, Ms Sochua said.
“If they want to give her justice, they should catch them,” she said.
Under the acid draft law to be debated today at the Assembly, the perpetrators of an attack such as that on Ms Marina could receive anywhere between five and 25 years in jail for causing permanent damage.
If the law is passed, courts could also start sentencing anyone convicted of murder with acid to between 15 and 30 years in jail. Critics, however, have knocked the latest draft of the law for watering down earlier versions that carried even heavier penalties for acid crimes.