Graham Cleghorn….victim of injustice in Cambodia?

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Phnom Penh Post,
Issue 16/14, July 13-26, 2007

Media hype clouds Cleghorn rape appeal
By Lachlan Forsyth and Sam Rith

The legal wrangling and jostling for headlines in the Graham Cleghorn case look set to continue, after the Cambodian Court of Appeal upheld his conviction for rape.

At a July 10 announcement following his appeal hearing the presiding judges said they found no reason to dismiss the charges or reduce his sentence.

Cleghorn, 60, a New Zealander, was tried and convicted for the rape of five teenage girls employed at his Siem Reap home in February 2004.

"I have to say that we are all totally devastated at the outcome of the appeal and still firmly believe that Graham has not had a fair and proper hearing in to his case," said Cleghorn's New Zealand lawyer, Greg King, in a July 12 email.

King said Cambodia must ensure that minimum standards of criminal procedure were adhered to, as defined under the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights.

"This especially relates to the refusal of all courts to date to hear from the defense witnesses that Graham wanted heard at his original trial in 2004. The fact that his appeal has taken nearly three years and was 'adjourned' eight times, really makes us question what is going on over there," he said.

Oung Chanthol, director of the Cambodian Women's Crisis Centre (CWCC), an NGO that helped bring about the charges, said the organization was delighted that the decision had been upheld, and said it set a "great precedent."

"We are satisfied with the result of the verdict this morning," said CWCC Municipality Coordinator Nop Sarinsreyroth. "Even though nothing can be done to replace the damage done to the victims -at least they have now got justice."

The trial has sparked a great deal of media attention in New Zealand.

Concern about Cleghorn's first appeal hearing, held without his or his lawyer's presence, and without New Zealand or British embassy officials being notified, prompted the New Zealand government to press Cambodian court for a second appeal.

But the absence of witnesses, lawyers and Cleghorn himself meant it took numerous attempts and more than 12 months before the hearing was finally held.

After the July 10 decision was announced the New Zealand embassy consul in Bangkok, Grant Traill, said that New Zealand does not hold any opinions on the outcomes of criminal proceedings against New Zealanders.

"As long as the appeal process was in accordance with Cambodian law and proper judicial process, the verdict must be accepted," he said.

But many New Zealanders remain concerned that Cleghorn did not receive what could be considered a fair trial by New Zealand standards.

Cleghorn maintains the victims, who all worked for him, were paid up to $10,000 each by the CWCC to testify against him.

Further accusations that the original judge was in cahoots with the CWCC and was intending to blackmail Cleghorn for his land, did little to quell rumors that Cleghorn had been set up.

While the legal wrangling continues, the media is proving an increasingly important player in this drama.

The handling of the trial and subsequent appeals ensured that doubts still lingered in New Zealand about the efficiency and efficacy of the Cambodian justice system, and as a result the case received widespread media coverage.

Not all of that coverage was been deemed helpful to Cleghorn's cause.

Dunedin-based Cleghorn supporter Dr Lynley Hood said the serious nature of the allegations carried a powerful emotional impact and profound sense of urgency. Hood is the author of "A City Possessed," a book which questioned the methods used to gain the high-profile conviction Peter Ellis on child sex abuse charges. Hood said there were parallels between the two cases.

"These factors can cloud any dispassionate consideration of the facts. As a result, the accused's right to natural justice is often swept aside in the rush to judgment, and allegations tend to be treated as established facts," Hood said via email.

"Nothing is more damaging and defamatory than wrongly accusing a man of being a pedophile," she added.

Meanwhile, the CWCC has been critical of a so-called "smear campaign" launched by the New Zealand media.

"It is surprising and sorry to see the low quality of professionalism of some NZ media. Most articles presented only one-sided-information, echoing the voice of Cleghorn, his supporters or sympathizers, who strategically slandered or defamed CWCC to get the attention out of his case," she said.

Chanthol said often little effort was made to contact either the victims or CWCC and she has consistently denied Cleghorn's claims the CWCC had bribed victims.

"[Cleghorn] has been shown as innocent and sympathetic by stating that he lost weight, attempted to commit suicide, his teeth were falling out...these articles completely failed to say about the suffering, tears, trauma, and future of the girls and their families," Chanthol told the Post.

"I could not understand those articles which condemned CWCC, which helps thousand girls who were raped, trafficked and beaten up by their abusive husbands, while they were campaigning for the convicted. Would they do that if the case happened in New Zealand?"

King said his client had a lot of support in New Zealand, and a media campaign was being used to maintain public momentum for the case.