In a Cambodian court room in the provincial town of Tachmao, an Australian missionary is again being forced to defend himself over failed efforts by a South Korean-based charity to construct a school for 1,000 bilingual students.
His case is a test for a justice system ranked by the World Justice Project as “the worst civil justice system in the region.” It ranks second lowest in an index of 113 countries.
Chan had worked as a volunteer for a Christian charity His International Services (HIS), alongside director Jung Young-Kim from South Korea, which contracted local company PHV Construction to build the school.
But the multi-million-dollar project was abandoned in 2016 after a dispute with PHV, which soon turned nasty and the case was referred to the National Commercial Arbitration Centre (NCAC), a civil court, where Chan, his director, and charity were cleared of any wrongdoing.
That was where the matter should have ended. The NCAC was established to resolve civil matters among charities, nongovernmental organizations, companies, and individuals and bring Cambodia more into line with other ASEAN countries, particularly Singapore.
However, the provincial courts, police, and prosecutors are struggling to recognize the jurisdiction of this type of arbitration, and PHV refused to accept the decision.
In Kandal province, PHV launched criminal charges, and Chan was arrested last year and charged with “criminal fraud.” He spent three months behind bars, sharing a cell with more than 90 other inmates after bail applications were denied twice by the court in Kandal.
“This case is suppose to be a very simple case but it’s ended up being very complicated,” Chan added. “I’ve spent 95 days in prison and it was very difficult.”
Bail was finally granted after the provincial court was overruled by an appeals court in Phnom Penh last month and his case has won widespread support among Khmers, expatriates, and further afield.
An international petition calling on Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to back his release and asking Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen to intervene has garnered more than 17,000 signatures.
Chan said he was optimistic of being acquitted and has been backed by the Supreme Consultation Forum (SCF), a body that can refer difficult legal cases to Hun Sen for mediation.
“We are preparing a detailed report after our own investigations into the charge and it will be sent to Samdech Techo [Prime Minister Hun Sen],” NCAC spokesman Sok Vathana Sabung told the Phnom Penh Post.
“Regarding the charge … I do not understand why the prosecutor charged Chan with fraud. I do not believe the prosecutor followed the law properly,” he said.
As his case was wrapped up in Kandal last Friday and a verdict date set for April 7, Chan was optimistic.
“I think the lawyers have defended me quite well,” Chan said. “It was a repeat of the same arguments that came up before arbitration when we were cleared of any wrongdoing but in the end it’s up to the judge.”
On a wider front, the Cambodian court system has been much maligned. The NCAC was introduced to help streamline, clean up the judiciary, and relieve the caseloads, and there are many, particularly in regards to civil matters.
But its authority is being challenged by the provinces – in their courts, by their prosecutors and their police – which is not what the Cambodian government had in mind when establishing a civil court.
Which is why the case of an Australian missionary, a South Korean charity, and their failed attempts to build a school is being so closely followed.