The deputy principal of an international school in Phnom Penh was still being questioned by police on Monday on suspicion of sexually abusing a 5-year-old pupil, but an official raised doubts over the allegations as the investigation progressed.
Mark Andrew Smith, 39, a U.K. national and father of two, was detained on Friday as he left Golden Bridge International School of Phnom Penh to go home.
Mr. Smith was arrested two days after a Cambodian woman, known as Viriya MC on Facebook, livestreamed a video on Facebook on Wednesday describing the alleged abuse.
In the video, Ms. Viriya, who lists herself on Facebook as a counselor at Radio Sarika FM, claims she had met the parents of the girl whom Mr. Smith is accused of sexually abusing at his home. Ms. Viriya claimed that the parents had a meeting with the school’s president.
The video was widely shared on social media and commented on in internet forums.
However, no complaint has officially been filed in the case.
On Monday, Ms. Viriya uploaded another Facebook video apologizing to the girl’s family, saying that she did not intend to “degrade” the family’s reputation. She said she only wanted to share the information with other parents.
Seng Rithy, president of Golden Bridge International School of Phnom Penh, could not be contacted on Monday. A receptionist at the school, who declined to be named, said Mr. Rithy was “addressing the case.”
Mr. Smith is being held in the Interior Ministry’s anti-human trafficking department. Pol Phithey, director of the department, and his deputy Chiv Phally could not be reached for comment on Monday.
Chou Bun Eng, secretary of state with the Interior Ministry and vice chair of the national committee to combat human trafficking, on Monday said investigations had to take place due to the widespread publicity of the case.
“This matter is not only the matter of the individual, it has become an issue of society because this story went viral publicly. Even if there was a complaint or there was not, we still have to find out the truth,” Ms. Bun Eng said.
Mr. Smith was also being held to protect his safety, she added.
“Firstly, we want to figure out the truth, and secondly, we want to secure his safety, too,” she said.
“When there is a public accusation like this, people are not happy.”
Interviews with both Ms. Viriya and the parents of the alleged victim had raised doubts over the allegations, Ms. Bun Eng said.
“It seems like there is something mysterious because in the beginning [everyone] seemed very eager and when we brought them to actually question them, each one avoided making a complaint,” she said.
“[The parents] seemed to have something to hide, that’s why we couldn’t make any conclusion just yet.”
Mr. Smith’s girlfriend, Sem Malis, 30, the mother of his two young children, said on Sunday that he had called her after his arrest denying the accusation and that she believed in his innocence.
Anti-pedophile NGO Action Pour Les Enfants released a media statement on Monday confirming it was informed of the case by a “tip-off” on Thursday.
“APLE…immediately started to assist police identifying the victim and suspect as well as gathering information to help with the investigation,” the statement said.
“In this case, we commend police’s quick response that sought to stop the abuse from getting worse,” it said.
The statement added that the arrest marked the 10th arrest of a “child abuser” working in Cambodian schools since 2015, despite the fact Mr. Smith has not been charged and no formal complaint has been filed against him.
APLE said in the release that the number of cases it had responded to involving child sexual abuse in institutions was “alarming.”
Criminal background checks and regular assessments of staff working with children should be implemented in schools urgently, it added.
soumy@cambodiadaily.com
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