The Former Director of the NGO Sovann Komar to Go on Trial for Child Abuse in Phnom Penh

Police stand guard in front of Phnom Penh municipal court in Phnom Penh on November 26, 2020. (Photo: AFP)

Sothea Arun is also accused by the NGO of embezzling as much as $1.4 million



PHNOM PENH--The NGO Sovann Komar’s first case against its former director Sothea Arun is to be heard in Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Jan. 13.



The court hearing will focus on child abuse charges filed by the NGO, Sovann Komar said in an email interview. The other charges against Arun for child rape, fraud and breach of trust for allegedly stealing as much as $1.4 million while he was running the organization will be heard in separate actions, Sovann Komar said.



This first trial was to start in December 2020 but was postponed to January 2021 due to a possible conflict of interest regarding one of Arun’s attorneys.



The investigation into his management of the NGO, which led to his firing in 2019, followed the death of Elizabeth Ross Johnson, an heiress to the US multinational corporation Johnson & Johnson who had founded the NGO in 2003.  



Sovann Komar has been providing orphaned and abandoned children in Cambodia with a family environment in a village setting in which they get education and healthcare. Its compound in Phnom Penh is located in Chbar Ampov District and is now next to a development project of the Overseas Cambodia Investment Corporation.



“For many years, Mr.  Sothea Arun tricked the founding donor (in the United States) that he was running a beautiful village here in Cambodia,” Sovann Komar said. “He would put on elaborate displays when they came to visit.  But the reality was harshly different.”



When Johnson passed away in 2017, donors started looking at the organization’s books to check how the $20 million or so the NGO had received to fund operations over the years had been used. They discovered that large sums of money had disappeared. This led to Arun being fired in August 2019.



“We can account for a portion of these funds,” Sovann Komar said in the email interview. “For money unaccounted for, it has not yet been recovered.  Mr. Sothea Arun has amassed a massive real estate portfolio, including properties in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap, Mondulkiri and elsewhere in the country, which we believe was financed in part by money intended for the NGO. Based on evidence we have, including witness testimony, it is clear that Mr. Sothea Arun massively abused his position as director of the NGO,” Sovann Komar said.  



“In addition, in 2014, Mr. Sothea Arun has built himself a massive villa not too far from Sovann Komar—this is not speculation, we have evidence,” Sovann Komar’s email read. “Mr. Sothea Arun told donors that he would only travel to Siem Reap by bus, building up an image of a humble and poor man, while he was busy building a massive villa with a swimming pool and KTV room.”



The NGO has been working with the court on the fraud and breach of trust case.  “In a perfect world, we could move to seize assets, and have them put into a trust fund for the benefit of the Sovann Komar children and their future,” the NGO said in its message. “It is yet to be seen if this will be possible.”



The investigation done on behalf of the donors uncovered child abuse and rapes, the NGO said. “The other defendants in the child abuse case are…Ms. Thay Sinoun and Ms. Ung Veansa Nimol. The other defendant in the fraud and breach of trust case is Mr. Sothea Arun’s accountant, Ms. Cheat Chan Morokot—with whom Mr. Sothea Arun also fathered a baby.”



Following the investigation that led to filing charges, Sovann Komar said in its email, “steps were taken to transfer some of the teenage children who are threatening some of the witnesses against Mr. Sothea Arun (children and staff) to another well-funded NGO.



“[T]his is being stone-walled by Ministry of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation (MOSAVY) [individuals] who were close to Mr. Sothea Arun—one can only speculate on their reasons but we note a complaint has been made to the Anti-Corruption Unit concerning Mr. Sothea Arun’s conduct with MOSAVY and other government offices.”



Since the NGO has filed charges against Arun, Sovann Komar has had difficulty with the procedures for its memorandum of understanding (MoU) at the Ministry of Social Affairs in spite of the fact that the NGO continues to abide by the ministry’s standard, the NGO said. “We are fully compliant, fully staffed, and backed by an outstanding donor family,” the NGO writes in the email interview.



Numerous attempts to get comments from the ministry were unsuccessful. Moreover, attempts to get in touch with Arun or his attorney by way of the court were also unsuccessful.



At the end of the email interview, Sovann Komar had a message for those who fund NGOs. “[M]ake sure that those you put in charge of running your organization are actually doing the right thing… Trust, but verify.



“If there was any silver lining to this, it would be the huge amount of public dialogue, which is now happening regarding sexual abuse and violence against women and children,” the NGO said in the email interview. “We sincerely hope that this news can reach as many people as possible to educate and deter these kinds of situations from happening again.”


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