For Indian T-shirt seller Raj Deo and British retiree Roy Sheppard, the long arm of the law isn’t very long.
Both men were sentenced to more than a year in prison this month for sexually assaulting children in Siem Reap last year, but neither was in custody at the time, and the provincial court has allowed them to remain free, using a legal loophole to justify its decision.
And according to anti-pedophile NGO Action Pour Les Enfants, both Mr. Deo, 47, and Mr. Sheppard, 77, continue to pose a threat to children in Cambodia. More worryingly, the group notes, their whereabouts are unknown.
“We felt frustrated in the first place when they were released on bail despite the amount of evidence, and we felt even more frustrated when they were all found guilty while they remain at large,” APLE country director Samleang Seila said earlier this week.
Mr. Deo and Mr. Sheppard were both released on bail before their cases went to trial. Siem Reap Provincial Court spokesman Yin Srang has said Mr. Sheppard was released for health reasons, but has repeatedly refused to explain the court’s decision to free Mr. Deo.
On June 16, Mr. Deo was sentenced to 14 months in prison for sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl in Siem Reap City in December. The next day, Mr. Sheppard was sentenced to 18 months for molesting three teenage boys last year.
But because the men were released prior to their convictions, and because they were sentenced in absentia, Judge Sin Sovannarath —who sentenced Mr. Deo—and Judge Nguon Nara—who sentenced Mr. Sheppard—are not required to issue warrants for their arrest.
And neither judge did.
For their freedom, Mr. Deo and Mr. Sheppard can thank articles 365, 368, 370 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, which together guarantee a person convicted in absentia 15 days to request a retrial and an additional 30 days to appeal the decision.
“We can’t do anything until the verdict is final,” Mr. Srang, the court spokesman, said Wednesday.
But that’s not true.
“If the court declares the punishment to be at least 1 (one) year imprisonment without suspension, the court by a special decision with reasons may issue during the hearing…an arrest warrant against the accused person who is absent,” reads Article 353 of Criminal Procedure Code.
Prominent legal expert Sok Sam Oeun confirmed that the Siem Reap court was within its rights to allow the convicted child abusers to remain temporarily free, but said the provisions that granted the court this option were based on the presumption that a judge’s integrity was beyond reproach.
“If we respect the discretion of the judge, maybe it’s OK,” he said. But judges, he added, “implement differently, so maybe [Article 353] should be reviewed.”
Mr. Seila of APLE said he was frustrated by the court’s decision not to arrest Mr. Deo and Mr. Sheppard, but that the issue would be moot if the court had not freed them in the first place.
“They made a mistake to grant bail to those two men,” he said on Wednesday.
The young victims in both cases, Mr. Seila said, want to know “when these offenders will be arrested,” adding that neither man has been seen in Siem Reap City in recent months.
Hang Hoeum, chief of the city’s Svay Dangkum commune, where Mr. Deo lived before his arrest, said the Indian’s continued freedom was worrying.
“If this foreigner can’t be arrested due to the appeal period, and he leaves to escape from the sentence, it will be hard for the authorities to find him,” he said on Thursday. “If he’s free…he could commit a crime again in another area where police can’t find him.”
Authorities in Slakram commune, where Mr. Sheppard lived, could not be reached.
Duong Thavary, chief of the provincial police’s anti-human trafficking bureau, has said that she cannot move to arrest the men without a court-issued warrant.
“We can’t be frustrated with the court, because it’s the law and procedure,” she said. “But their freedom worries some of us, too.”