Christian missionary Martin Chan is released on bail by a Cambodian court on Feb. 7. He was cleared of criminal fraud on April 21 after a four-year ordeal over a school project that turned sour. (Photo: Luke Hunt/UCA News)
A Cambodian appeals court judge has dismissed charges of criminal fraud brought against a Christian missionary after efforts to build a multi-million-dollar school for bilingual students collapsed and turned into a bitter dispute.
“It is a relief,” Martin Chan, 49, said after being told by his lawyer that he was found not guilty. Chan was not in court when the verdict was announced on April 21 due to repeated delays in his case.
He said his faith had kept him going throughout his four-year ordeal.
“I think it actually strengthened my faith, particularly when I spent three months inside prison. God has revealed many things that I can do in the future and that includes more social work inside the jail,” he said.
“I’d like to do more ministry-related work inside the prison because God has brought me to meet more people like the prison guards and the authorities, the police, and they were very supportive of that. It gave me an opportunity to connect with them in the future.”
Chan worked as a volunteer for a Christian charity called HIS International Services, which contracted local firm PHV Construction to build a school for 1,000 bilingual students.
But the huge project was abandoned in 2016 after a dispute with the contractors that turned bitter. The case was referred to a civil court, the National Commercial Arbitration Centre, and Chan and his charity were cleared of all fault.
However, PHV was not happy with the decision and launched criminal charges, prompting Chan’s arrest while boarding a plane to Hong Kong last November. He was jailed and shared a small cell in Kandal Provincial Prison with 95 other men after bail was refused. He was released on bail at his third attempt in February.
“Hopefully I can get on with it and start a new chapter of our lives in Cambodia,” he said, referring to his wife Deborah Kim who was constantly by his side.
Both are from Australia and they own an optometry shop in Phnom Penh.
His case has won widespread support among Khmers, particularly online, and an international petition demanding his release and calling on the Australian government to intervene garnered more than 12,000 names.
The case was closely watched by NGOs, charities and business groups concerned with Cambodia’s court system, which has a well-known reputation for corruption.
Chan was also backed by the Supreme Consultation Forum, which can refer difficult legal cases to Prime Minister Hun Sen for mediation.
However, Chan still faces problems. Following his arrest, he was banned from leaving Cambodia and he said the paperwork to resolve this issue would take about a month.
“I think I’ll enjoy a good home-cooked meal tonight,” he added.