Graham Cleghorn….victim of injustice in Cambodia?

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The Dominion Post
February 25 2006

Living hell in a Cambodian cell
by Matthew Torbit


`We all lived in that country knowing it is corrupt. My faith in the system isn't shattered because I never had any faith

 

A world away from his homeland, Kiwi Graham Cleghorn sits in a filthy, overcrowded Cambodian prison cell. Waiting.

More than two years after he was convicted of raping five teenage Cambodian girls, the former traffic officer, paramedic and aid worker sits in his maximum-security prison cell, waiting to find out if he will ever get the chance to clear his name of crimes he says he did not commit.

"If I was in here for murder, I would walk around here with my head held high. I would rather be called a murderer. To be called a sex offender, to be charged with rape -- rape I didn't commit -- that takes every last shred of dignity," he said in November.

The New Zealand Government has twice raised concerns with Cambodian authorities about the handling of Cleghorn's case. The first time was after his nine-hour trial in February 2004 -- in which he was refused a translator, denied the right to call his own witnesses and not allowed to cross-examine prosecution witnesses.

The New Zealand Government became involved again last month after his appeal was dismissed. It was held in secret.

Otago University international law expert Associate Professor Kevin Dawkins says if the diplomatic requests that are under way fail, New Zealand can instigate proceedings against Cambodia in the International Court of Justice, in The Hague.

He says Cleghorn's trial and subsequent appeal seemed "primitive and cynical" and breached basic levels of international law.

The Cambodian legal system is a mix of colonial and local traditions and is known for its brevity and summarised proceedings, Professor Dawkins says. If there is an appeal or retrial, recent media coverage will place greater international scrutiny on the case and the court.

It is all a long way from Petone, where Cleghorn grew up. He attended Hutt Valley Memorial Technical College, before becoming an ambulance driver. He later became a traffic officer and joined the Territorials as a medic in 1969.

During the 1980s Cleghorn became a real estate agent but left New Zealand after the 1987 sharemarket crash and trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand.

He worked with heroin addicts in Thai monasteries before helping Cambodian refugees, who had fled civil war and lived in camps on the Thai-Cambodian border.

When United Nations peacekeeping troops arrived in the region in 1989, Cleghorn set up a bar -- called the Minefield -- in the northern Cambodian town of Siem Reap. It was a popular hangout for the troops.

When most of them left two years later, Cleghorn and one of his five daughters, Heidi Madeley, opened a company catering for the tourism trade that immediately followed the end of civil hostilities.

Cleghorn quickly became one of the top guides in the region and gained a reputation for taking his clients into areas seldom visited by Westerners.

One former client described Cleghorn, fluent in Khmer, as "having a love of adventure and the ability to fill the evenings with Vietnam War stories".

Mrs Madeley, who now lives in Perth, says the tourism business proved a huge success, but since her father's imprisonment, many people in and around Siem Reap had died from poverty.

Through his tour business, he used to take people off the beaten track to poor villages. "As a result some money was coming in to these people and they were able to afford to build basic necessities like water pumps. Now of course that's all stopped."

As his tourism business took off, Cleghorn bought land overlooking the ancient Angkor Wat temple. That land is the reason behind the rape accusations, Ms Madeley says.

Cleghorn maintains Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge Tan Senarong wanted his land and allegedly enlisted his sister, head of the Siem Reap branch of the Cambodian Women's Crisis Centre child protection group, to bribe five teenage girls to press rape charges against him.

Mr Senarong was stripped of his judge's title last year after being singled out by Prime Minister Hun Sen for corruption.

The then financial controller of the women's crisis centre -- and former minister of women's and veterans affairs -- Mu Sochua was also implicated in the corruption sting.

Mrs Madeley says corruption is so deep-seated in Cambodia that no official would admit to faults in the judicial processes surrounding Cleghorn's case, as it would "send shockwaves all the way to the top".

"We all lived in that country knowing that it is corrupt. My faith in the system isn't shattered because I never had any faith for it in the first place.

"If anything, being in jail has renewed Dad's faith in the Cambodian people."

When her father was being held in the Siem Reap prison soon after his arrest in October 2003, people from his home village would visit him daily taking him food and supplies.

However, early last year he was transferred to the Prey Sar prison in Phnom Penh more than 200 kilometres away.

Cleghorn's health has deteriorated since then, and visits from the villagers are less frequent.

Swiss national Rudolf Knuchel, who also owned land in Cambodia, backs Cleghorn's claim of innocence. He spent 57 days in a Cambodian jail in 2002 when false rape claims were brought against him by the women's crisis centre.

The group -- established in 1997 -- was after a slice of the millions of dollars of international aid and funding that was being poured into Cambodia, Mr Knuchel says. The way to do it was by finding and convicting sex offenders. The ploy was to approach the mothers of girls in poor rural villages and offer them vast sums of money, usually US$10,000 (NZ$15,000), to lay rape complaints against Western men.

A CWCC representative hung up the phone when contacted by The Dominion Post.

Denise Ritchie, founder of New Zealand-based child rights group Stop Demand, says Cambodia is seen as a top destination for foreign child sex offenders, because of relaxed enforcement and penalties.

"Fifteen years ago it was places like Sri Lanka -- up until recently the age of consent for girls was 12 and there wasn't one for boys."

Thousands of foreign men travelled to Cambodia -- where the age of consent is 15 -- for illicit sex with underage boys and girls.

Ms Ritchie says Cambodian authorities are beginning to clamp down on child sex offenders and "heaps" of child protection agencies have emerged in the past five years.

Though she agrees Cleghorn deserves a fair go, she says it does not mean he is innocent of the rape charges.

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CAPTION:

Father, inmate, carer, monk: Graham Cleghorn and his daughter Heidi Madeley in the grounds of Phnom Penh's Prey Sar prison in August last year. In his younger days, top right, as an ambulance driver, and later, as a Buddhist monk in Thailand.