An orphanage set up by a Johnson & Johnson heiress on prime Phnom Penh waterfront land has become embroiled in a child torture trial that on Friday saw a teenage witness who went “missing” for five days show up to “find justice” in favor of the alleged torturer.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court was due to commence the trial on Friday morning, but the session was postponed amid questions of a conflict of interest among one of the lawyers.
The orphanage, Sovann Komar, was established in 2003 by Elizabeth Johnson, an heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical fortune. The facility took care of more than 50 children in family-style units, with married couples taking care of five or six children each, she told a newspaper in 2009.
Johnson died in 2017, however, leaving others in the family to take care of the project.
The compound is on prime waterfront real estate in Chbar Ampov district, next to the currently under-construction Koh Norea satellite city development by the prominent Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation.
Last year, Sothea Arun, the facility’s long-time director, was fired alongside the head of security and about a dozen staff as new management took over, local media reported.
Arun was at the time accused of a raft of misconduct, including fraud and physical abuse, leading to the child torture court case against him.
Earlier this week, a lawyer representing the orphanage told the Khmer Times that a teen witness had gone missing from the facility on Sunday, and that he feared Arun was manipulating her and other children to testify in his favor.
The girl was at the courthouse on Friday. Media and NGO monitors were barred from the session, with a court official saying it was due to Covid-19 precautions.
But the girl told a reporter as she exited that she wanted to defend Arun: “I came here to find justice for him.”
She was away from the orphanage for five days, she added, without explaining where she had been.
Sao Vita, one of four defense lawyers, said the allegations against Arun included torture against about 10 children under his care.
Vita said there was some dispute about child witnesses changing their answers, with fears of manipulation on both sides, and whether the orphanage was allowing all children who wanted to testify in defense of Arun to come to court.
On Friday, a judge had asked four of the child witnesses whether they loved justice and the truth, Vita said.
He argued that there was not enough evidence supporting a torture case.
Tan Keattech, one of four lawyers representing the orphanage, said he had nearly 10 witnesses, including resident children and former facility doctors and staff members, alleging torture. But there were also opposing witnesses on the other side, he said.
“So it requires the court to consider and make a decision on the evidence,” Keattech said.
He said children who wanted to testify were being allowed to do so freely, and the orphanage had on Friday driven child residents who would be testifying for Arun to the court.
“We have not banned or silenced them,” he said. “We brought them.”
Another point of contention on Friday was whether one of the defense lawyers should be allowed to represent Arun considering he was formerly the orphanage’s lawyer, Keattech said.
“We are afraid that he would have some secret documents that can be used against the NGO, so we protested,” he said, adding that it would be up to the Bar Association to decide whether the lawyer can participate in the case.