A student TV presenter used a knife to “swing at or stab” tycoon Heng Sier while defending herself against “sexual harassment or attempted rape,” the Phnom Penh Municipal Court announced in equivocating findings this week as it dropped a theft charge against her.
The case, which sparked a social media outcry month, has previously raised issues of power imbalances in the entertainment industry as well as Cambodia’s long history of women facing abuse at the hands of powerful men.
The court’s turnaround from arresting the young woman last month based on a tycoon’s complaint, to releasing her and dropping the charge against her in the wake of a public uproar, has also prompted questions about the government’s long-standing claims of judicial independence — with one observer saying the courts were making decisions by “remote control.”
Last month, Mean Pich Rita, 20, was arrested for theft with aggravating circumstances following a complaint by Sier, an oknha. But she in turn accused Sier of attempted rape at gunpoint, and following a social media outcry was released from prison.
The court’s findings issued this week dropped the theft charge, but also made no mention of a gun.
The court considered the answers given by Pich Rita, also known as Yubi, as well as her lawyer’s filings, it said. She had testified that she met Sier in his car to discuss his daughter’s business, and waved a sharp knife at him because he touched her thigh and reached into her belongings, it said.
The court ruled against theft, saying “taking the phone from the car was just her confusion, thinking it was her phone.” Her use of a knife was self-defense under Article 33 of the Criminal Code, it added.
But the findings remain equivocal on other points. Pich Rita used a knife “to swing at or stab” Sier, it says. She was trying to “defend herself and escape and fight against sexual harassment or attempted rape,” it adds.
Sier’s daughter and son-in-law were arrested, questioned and released last month for using actors to stage a fake video that purported to show the stabbing incident in the car. The video, which was released on social media, showed a woman exiting a car with a large knife in her hand.
Court spokesman Y Rin could not be reached for comment about whether Sier would face prosecution for attempted rape.
Last month, Sier issued an apology via the government-aligned Kampuchea Thmey newspaper, owned by the prime minister’s daughter Hun Mana, alleging that Pich Rita was a sex worker who “demanded too much money” and stabbed him.
In a widely shared video, Pich Rita is comforted by her mother shortly after her arrest, and says, “When I close my eyes, I see him touching me. He had a gun and wanted to touch me.”
“Is this how things are supposed to happen in Cambodia?” Pich Rita says in the video. In an opinion piece for VOD, Future Forum gender researcher Theang Soriya said last month: “Yes, this is the way it has been.” In at least six other prominent cases, women in the entertainment industry have become victims of violence and injustice amid power imbalances.
The court’s handling of the case has also raised questions about judicial decision-making, and whether the courts’ decisions reflect justice or outside influences.
Sok Touch, the head of Cambodia’s Royal Academy, said the country’s courts appeared to only act when it is told what to do.
“This is called a remote-controlled court. When there is no pressing [of a button], they don’t do it,” Touch said. “It doesn’t matter what anybody says about ‘we fulfill the obligations as professionals, if they have done wrong, we enforce it in compliance with the law, and if they are right, we release them.’ If we wait for the prime minister or senior official [to give the word], it is no longer a court. It is remote control.”
Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager at human rights group Licadho, said there were prior examples of Prime Minister Hun Sen intervening in court cases, including for land disputes. In Kampong Speu province, Hun Sen in 2016 called on the court to release two community representatives on bail and dispatched two of his sons to help negotiate.
“These cases show that our justice system is still weak, and it means that some decisions over arrests are embroiled in injustice that leads to the [need for] intervention and [creates] less faith in the justice [system],” Sam Ath said.
“We have seen reactions from a flood of people, and it showed that the court of the people considered it unacceptable and unjust, so some top leaders and officials saw it as injustice and made an intervention.”
The government’s interventions were about addressing injustices, but also about seeking popularity, Sam Ath added.
Opposition politician Ou Chanrath, founder of the newly established Cambodia Reform Party, said the courts could not provide justice if they were under the control of the ruling party.
The president of the Supreme Court, Dith Munty, is a member of the ruling CPP’s exclusive permanent committee. Munty was the presiding judge in the controversial dissolution of the country’s main opposition party, the CNRP, in 2017.
Chanrath was a former member of the CNRP — and banned from politics for five years after its dissolution — but applied to be reinstated in a process CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy has described as effective betrayal.
“Every time there are strong reactions from many people, there is an intervention and authorities take action to compromise,” Chanrath said. “This is repeated and repeated because the court does not take a clear stance.”
“People’s voices on Facebook have become effective in some ways. When there is a reaction, the competent authorities have to pay attention,” Chanrath said.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin, however, said criticisms of the judiciary only revealed the biases of those speaking against it.
“Remote controlled or not remote controlled, it’s about the one who said it, the tendencies of the one who said it. The most important thing is the court implements the procedure and the law, and decisions are based on the law and facts on the ground,” Malin said. “I have seen that those who have said it in the past based it not on procedure but based on feelings and their tendencies.”
Malin has been outspoken about tightening judges’ decision-making since at least 2015. Then-Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana commented at the time that there were wide disparities in rape-case sentences due to judges’ moods: “Some days if he is happy, he reduces the punishment.”
“This is an issue we need to solve together,” Vong Vathana said in 2015.
Malin told the Cambodia Daily at the time that arbitrary decisions would not be tolerated.
“For judges and prosecutors who [make decisions based on] their feelings or do not comply with the law or do not issue proper verdicts, there will be punishment … and they will face criminal charges,” Malin said then.