An Australian national has been found dead in his Cambodian jail cell, officials and family said yesterday.
Bart “Lucky” Lauwaert, a former teacher, had been serving a 20-year sentence for child sex offenses in a case that was spearheaded by Cambodian Women’s Crisis Center (CWCC), a local rights group.
In a phone interview from Siem Reap prison, 400km north of the capital, after his last avenue of appeal was closed last month, Lauwaert threatened suicide and alleged he had been “set up” by people trying to garner donor aid from high profile arrests.
A prison official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Lauwaert had not been on suicide watch and no formal cause of death had been established, although heart failure had not been ruled out.
Lauwaert, 41, was arrested with fellow Australian Clinton Betterridge in 2002 and the pair was charged with molesting more than a dozen Cambodian girls aged under 15 in Siem Reap.
Their case became controversial in 2006 when all the girls who had originally testified against the men in Siem Reap court recanted in the Cambodian Appeals Court, claiming they were promised financial rewards by the CWCC for their testimony.
The CWCC said the girls had been coerced by a pedophile ring, but despite his 10-year sentence being upheld in absentia, Betterridge was released the same day from an Australian jail where he had been held since jumping bail and fleeing Cambodia.
Then-Australian justice minister Chris Ellison also ordered a full investigation into any Australian aid supplied to the CWCC.
The CWCC strenuously denies any wrongdoing, pointing to continued funding from highly reputable donors including USAid and a decade-long record dotted with awards and accolades.
A former Siem Reap judge, Tan Senarong, has publicly admitted his sister works for the CWCC Siem Reap, but denies she works in any area of the organization where a conflict of interest could arise.
One final foreigner remains in jail from a CWCC spearheaded investigation. New Zealand national Graham Cleghorn has also claimed he was set up by powerful interests wanting his valuable land in Siem Reap, which has been sold since his 2004 arrest.
He is also in poor health, according to his family and a doctor’s report, and has also threatened suicide if his appeals fail.
The CWCC founder and director in charge when the foreign men were arrested, Oung Chanthol, resigned last year citing fatigue over the controversy and a need to spend more time with her children.