Two years after her face was disfigured in an acid attack, and with all six of her assailants convicted but still roaming free, Ya Soknim and 18 of her family members plan to seek asylum through the UN, family members and a human-rights worker said yesterday.
They said the group’s decision to flee was a direct result of Cambodian authorities’ failure both to protect them and to punish Ms Soknim’s attackers.
“She’s too afraid to come back,” Ms Soknim’s husband, Uong Vibol, said yesterday by telephone, adding that police and the courts have not done enough to ensure the safety of the family.
Mr Vibol said he planned to collect his wife from Vietnam, where she is undergoing renewed treatment for her injuries, and take her to Malaysia, where 17 family members are already waiting.
“They have all received threats from Chea Ratha,” he said referring to the former Military Police Deputy Chief of Staff who in November was convicted in absentia by the Court of Appeal of ordering the attack. Authorities said Ms Ratha, 45, became enraged after her lover, the victim’s niece In Solyda, fled a coercive sexual relationship.
“They were threatened with being killed and other pressures,” said Mr Vibol.
Police and government officials said yesterday that Ms Soknim and her family were overstating the threats to their safety and did not need to flee.
Ms Soknim lost an ear and the right side of her face was plated with scar tissue after she was doused with acid in a May 2008 attack in the capital.
“No suspect has been arrested and the Supreme Court still delays the case,” said Mr Vibol, adding that family members have been interviewed twice by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Malaysia and are still awaiting a decision as to whether they will be recognized as refugees.
In August last year, Phnom Penh Municipal Court acquitted Ms Ratha and five accomplices, prompting Ms Soknim’s family to publicly denounce the verdict and come forward with audio recordings, which they said captured Ms Ratha’s threats against the family.
Police also expressed dismay at the decision, claiming it was the third time that the military police commander had faced allegations of involvement in acid attacks. In November, the Court of Appeal overturned the acquittal, saying that Ms Ratha ordered the attack on Ms Soknim.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor at the human-rights organization Licadho, said the family was still receiving death threats from Ms Ratha, who is still listed as “wanted” on Interpol’s website.
“They all have received threats from Chea Ratha,” Mr Sam Ath said, adding that Ms Soknim’s family secretly left for Malaysia to apply for asylum after the municipal court acquitted Ms Ratha and her accomplices.
Ms Ratha, Meas Mao, 40, and Seak Chandy, 27, were each sentenced in absentia by the Court of Appeal in November to 18 years in prison for infringement of individual rights and attempted murder.
Ea Puthea, 33, Saing Savuth, 29, and Seak Sophal, 25, were each sentenced in absentia to 15 years in prison for conspiracy. The six, who remain at large, were jointly ordered to pay $100,000 in compensation to Ms Soknim.
Though they had initially been detained, Mr Puthea and Mr Chandy were released from provisional detention on Aug 31 immediately after the acquittals. By law, they should have remained in custody for a 30-day window for prosecutors to lodge their appeal.
Through her lawyer, Ms Ratha filed an appeal with the Supreme Court.
Despite having no idea of the whereabouts of Ms Ratha or her accomplices, police and government officials contacted yesterday accused Ms Soknim and her family of using the attack as an excuse to leave Cambodia.
“It is simple. Those people are talking bad to get asylum,” said National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith.
“Only a few people have complained. We have 14 million people” in Cambodia, he said, adding that he had no details about the search for Ms Ratha and her accomplices.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong denied that Ms Soknim and her family were unsafe living in Cambodia.
“This is an exaggeration,” he said, adding that that act of people seeking asylum outside of the country does not effect Cambodia’s reputation. “Sooner or later the arrests will be made.”
Keo Vannthan, the director of Cambodia’s Interpol office who previously claimed Ms Ratha was hiding out in Bangkok, said yesterday that “we have lost her whereabouts.”
Ms Ratha’s former lawyer, Keo Ya, said yesterday that he knows the location of Ms Ratha but declined to say where, citing lawyer-client confidentiality.
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