6 Mar 2016
I was about to turn in for the night; it was almost 11pm. As usual, I gave my phone a final check. My good friend, Linda, had just sent me a flurry of messages.
What I was about to read was horrific and heart-breaking.
The message read: “Jo . . . something big has happened in Siem Reap and the man’s photo looks like Kosal . . . Kosal is involved in a rape case . . .”
Kosal. Rape. Both words made no sense together. My head was spinning as I re-read Linda’s messages on how she had stumbled on a Facebook post shared by a few Cambodian youth we got to know during past mission trips to the country. It was accompanied by a photograph of a 25-year-old man whom we had known for six years.
When Linda plonked the Khmer text into Google Translate, amid the jumble of English words that came up, the words “rape”, “murder”, “11-year-old girl” and “Kosal” stood out distinctly. She confirmed her suspicions with one of the local church leaders: Kosal was accused of raping and murdering an 11-year-old girl.
It was as though I had received news that my friend had died. Actually, this was worse. I felt sick to the stomach and my heart started to race as I processed what I had just read. Kosal? No way. Flashes of our friend’s smiling face crossed my mind.
We had just met Kosal on our most recent mission trip to Siem Reap, Cambodia. That was my fifth trip and Linda’s seventh. Everything was fine then. What could have gone so wrong in a matter of four months? What could have driven him to commit such a horrific act? How was his family dealing with this news? A deluge of questions filled my mind, but there were no answers. I wanted to reach out to my friends in Cambodia but it was too late at night. I felt utterly helpless and useless.
Sleep eluded me that night as I tossed and turned in bed. I just couldn’t believe how someone as mild and gentle as Kosal could be involved in such a heinous crime.
I had met Kosal six years ago—on my very first time to Cambodia—at a Bible study session that our mission team from Singapore was conducting for Christian youth in Pouk village in Siem Reap. Shy, polite, and unassuming, Kosal was introduced to us as the relative of one of the local leaders in the community.
The then-18-year-old was one of the few non-Christians at the session that night. He listened with rapt attention as one of my teammates shared the gospel with him through a translator. That night, he asked many questions which my friend patiently addressed. Months later, we heard that he had received the Lord and had been attending English classes regularly.
Subsequently, we saw Kosal every time we went back to visit and conduct programmes for the youth and children. He had assumed the role of English teacher in the village school and was serving actively and regularly in church. Thanks to his increasing proficiency in the English language, we were able to communicate with him more. He was still shy, but had learned to crack a joke or two and poke fun at our attempts to speak in Khmer.
Meeting him again on our most recent trip was like seeing an old friend. It warmed our hearts to see how much he had progressed. He had become one of the key youth leaders in Pouk village and was popular and well-regarded in the community. During class, his students would actively participate and after class, they would gather around him to play. It was evident how much he cared about them and how much they enjoyed his presence.
That’s what made the news so shocking. Why would Kosal commit rape and murder—much less of his own student, as we later found out? Kosal had repeatedly insisted he was innocent, but the local leaders, who had been updating us regularly, told us that the police apparently had sufficient evidence to prove that he was the perpetrator.
In the days to come, we would learn that Kosal, who was also the girl’s neighbor, was a suspect because he was at the scene of the crime. That day, the girl’s aunt had just come back from the market to find her hanging from a window by a television cable in what appeared to be a suicide. Kosal, who heard the aunt’s cries for help, had run over to help cut the cord. The police arrived at the scene shortly after. After examining her body, they concluded that the victim was raped and subsequently murdered. No details were shared at that point as to how the police had then determined that Kosal was the perpetrator.
All we knew was that he had been arrested on the spot and that a DNA test was to be conducted to determine whether or not he was guilty. The results would be ready only in 10 days, we were told. If he was to be found guilty, he would most likely face life imprisonment.
So we waited. But it wasn’t 10 days. It would be some 10 weeks later before we finally knew the truth of the matter.
Throughout that time, Kosal was kept in prison and we could do nothing but pray and ask the leaders for updates. They had been visiting him in prison regularly and Kosal had maintained his innocence. I thought about how lonely and scared Kosal must have felt, and how distraught the leaders too must have been, having to grapple with the fact that one of their own was suspected of rape and murder. It pained us knowing we could offer no practical help except mere words to comfort and assure them that we were praying for Kosal.
21 Apr 2016
Just when everything looked bleak, a glimmer of hope appeared. The DNA results were out and the result was negative! Kosal was innocent. He had been implicated in the case simply because he had been at the wrong place at the wrong time.
A surge of joy and relief filled my heart when one of the local leaders told us about the results. At the same time, I felt anger—over how Kosal had been treated—and deep sympathy towards him as I thought about all the emotional and psychological suffering he had gone through in the past few months. Still, I was thrilled that Kosal’s ordeal would be over.
Sadly, our joy was short-lived.
It wasn’t so straightforward, we were told. Kosal would not be released from prison as the judge had rejected the request to drop his case. Unless the local leaders were willing to pay a bribe, Kosal could spend at least another year in jail for a crime he did not commit.
It was a crushing blow to the local leaders, who had labored tirelessly to prove Kosal’s innocence. They were livid and disgusted. In one of the leader’s words, it was equivalent to “a legal kidnapping and ransom”. Despite the seemingly impossible situation, however, they refused to give in to pressure or to resort to unscrupulous means. They were determined to fight for Kosal’s release in the right way.
Over the next couple of months, the leaders spared no efforts to appeal the case to higher authorities, despite being warned that it would be a futile endeavor. The local church also came together in solidarity to pray for Kosal and his family. And God answered their prayers in the most incredible way: In the midst of this senseless tragedy, Kosal’s parents, as well as his two younger sisters, started going to church.
God had clearly not forgotten Kosal and his family. And that was just the beginning.
2 Sep 2016
Four months later, we heard the news we had long been hoping for. On 2 September, Kosal was finally released from prison. After a six-month ordeal in prison for a crime he did not commit, he was finally free.
That very evening Kosal was released, I saw a photograph on Facebook of Kosal having dinner with some of the key local leaders. He was smiling and looked well. It was a beautiful picture of God’s faithfulness, restoration, and love.
It has been two months since Kosal’s release from prison. He has yet to recover fully from his ordeal: he still has nightmares, and frequently suffers from sleepless nights. But there is a silver lining. Kosal’s whole family has since come to accept Jesus into their lives. A few weeks ago, the whole family testified of God’s grace and goodness in church.
As I think back on this entire episode, my heart is filled with joy and gratitude as I see how God had answered the cries of His children. He not only preserved Kosal, his family, and the community through this dark time, but also did a beautiful work in bringing his whole family to Christ. Kosal’s story is truly a testament of God’s faithfulness to His children (Romans 8:28), and is one I will hold on to when I face challenges in my own life.
I pray that Kosal will continue to testify of God’s goodness. To God be all glory!