Father battles to clear name after conviction for child molestation in Cambodia
PUBLISHED: 12:40 13 July 2020 | UPDATED: 17:01 13 July 2020
Archant Norfolk 2018
On September 24, 2017 Mark Smith woke up on the filthy floor of a prison cell in Cambodia.
He had scurvy and scabies. That day he bribed prison guards to use their toilet and drink fresh soup rather than the “sludge” given to inmates. It was his 40th birthday, but he told no-one.
How had the father-of-two from Gorleston ended up sharing a floor with 26 other men in the “VIP cell” of Prey Sar prison?
Until July 21, 2017 he had lived a good life in the south-east Asian country for almost ten years.
The now 42-year old was working as a vice principal in a private school in the capital, Phnom Penh, and had two children with a Cambodian woman.
But he would be convicted of a child abuse offence despite having no trial and never seeing any of the evidence against him. He still vigorously denies the allegations.
Political problems were rife in Cambodia in 2017 and he put his conviction down to politics and corruption.
It was a year before an election in which the ruling party would go on to win again and suppress opposition.
A leading opposition figure, Kem Ley, was killed in 2016 and independent newspaper The Cambodia Daily shut down in 2017.
Mr Smith’s cell was full of political prisoners, but he had never spoken out about politics and had not expected to get caught up in the crackdown.
However, the schools he worked for were owned by a supporter of the opposition party and members of the prime minister’s party were muscling in, he said, and wanting to take over a new school they were opening.
Then in July a radio station worker, and wife of an army general close to the government, live streamed a video on Facebook claiming she had spoken to the parents of a five-year-old girl who alleged she was abused by a foreign teacher who had taken her home.
She didn’t name the school but mentioned the cost of the school fees. People on social media then started identifying Mr Smith as the teacher.
The radio presenter then posted another message on Facebook saying she was not accusing Mr Smith, but in doing so named him.
■ The evidence
The next day he was asked to go down to a police station.
“When I got there, they started showing me the evidence they had against me,” he said.
“I was telling them I had no idea what any of it was about.
“They asked me if I recognised the girl that was supposedly the victim and I told them no.
“I explained to them how it wasn’t possible - there is CCTV through the school covering every part of the building.
“There are security guards on the gates and to get to my home you walk past a shop owned by my landlady who always calls out to me.
“I also had a live-in nanny for my two children.
“They wouldn’t even tell me the date when this was supposed to have happened.”
The officers then got out a brown envelope with the evidence against him.
“It was a picture of me on my motorbike by myself,” he said.
Mr Smith claimed the policeman then relaxed and said he should stay in the station for his own protection with his partner and children until the social media furore died down.
He slept in the station for three days. His passport was taken away and his arrest was reported in the MailOnline. But rather than being released, he was then charged with molesting a child.
Mr Smith said he was seen by three different judges in three days.
He claimed the first said he would have to pay $12,000 for his release; he said the second judge he saw told him he did not believe he had committed a crime.
But the third judge said he could not be released because of the media attention around the case - and sent him to Prey Sar prison.
“I was told that the whole thing was an embarrassment and that social media was the real problem in my case,” he claimed. “I was told to wait until the media furore died down and then I would be released.”
Arriving at the prison he was placed in a cell with 25 other men.
“The worst thing about it was not the conditions,” he said. “But not knowing when I would get out. Psychologically it was terrible.
“Some days I was told I would be getting released and then it never happened.”
He says he paid for more floor space and used the guards’ toilet rather than the hole in the middle of the cell.
Then after 10 weeks, having lost 12kg and spent hundreds of dollars on bribes, he was released.
Unknown to him, on the outside his family said they had been hassled by a local charity called APLE which helps convict foreign paedophiles.
Mr Smith also found out he had only been released because his family had paid $13,000 bail.
“Everyone was asking for money all the time,” he claimed.
Out of prison, he said he moved around a lot, fearful of being followed by APLE or the police.
“All this time I was constantly being told you will get your passport back next week and the charges will be dropped,” he said.
But that never happened.
Around six months after being released, in March 2018, the Khmer Times newspaper published an article saying he had been convicted of “committing indecent assault with aggravating circumstances”.
He was given a two-year suspended sentence plus a $1,250 fine.
Mr Smith said: “I was shocked and wondered what the hell was going on? I called my lawyer who said he would try to find out.”
The article had no information from the court, police or judge.
Neither the accused or accuser were in court. It was even worse than that. He claimed that the girl’s parents had signed a statement saying they had not accused Mr Smith, but the judge still convicted him.
The story was then reported in UK national papers, based on a statement from the charity APLE, which said: “The suspect was quickly identified at the school and sufficient evidence was found to justify the arrest.”
We asked APLE what that evidence was but are yet to hear from them.
“The judge who convicted me was telling me not to pay the fine,” Mr Smith said. “He said sorry to me but said it was good for everybody because I would be free to go home; there didn’t need to be an investigation, but he didn’t understand the kickback I would get.”
■ Home time
When his plane took off for London, he said he felt relief but that ended at Heathrow when he was stopped by the Border Agency who told him to report to a police station as he had been convicted of a crime abroad.
In August 2018 he had to appear at Great Yarmouth Magistrates’ Court where he was added to the sex offenders’ register for 10 years.
He protested his innocence again in court, but the prosecution said: “I understand Mr Smith is seeking to have this case overturned, but as Cambodian laws are similar to UK laws on this offence, he is required to join the sex offenders’ register here.”
A social worker also visited his home but raised no concerns about his own children.
However, without returning to Cambodia he has no way of overturning his conviction. He was also nervous about speaking out until now.
“I know some people will think, no smoke without fire,” he said. “But anyone who reads my story will know there really is none.”
He has sought help for mental ill-health since returning and is writing a book about his experiences. “The first year back I was just a nervous wreck,” he said. “But I’m getting help.”
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