sunsetby Bob Couttie

Sitting with a glass of pastis watching lovers stroll on the pretty riverside boulevard and the fishing boats heading out to the Gulf of Thailand as the sun sets over the Elephant Mountains, lighting up the facades of French colonial-era houses, it might be an afternoon on the French Riviera. It is Kampot, Cambodia, an idyllic place for murder.

Police in the town have arrested a 41 year old Belgian national for the rape and murder of a 25 year old French holidaymaker in a case that has shaken the foreign community in a famously tranquil part of the country. The Belgian,  Oliver Van Den Bogaert, had lived in the town for three years and until recently owned a riverside bar called Olly’s Place.

villaKampot is a sleepy, pretty town of 35,000 people on the south coast of Cambodia known for its laid back atmosphere and riverside guesthouses. Crime is low – the last big outbreak was of bag snatching a couple of years ago – violent crime rare, and tourism is a key industry. A popular place for backpackers, it is attracting an increasing number of retired people attracted by the town’s tranquility, low cost, the welcoming Cambodian locals who bear no enmity towards the foreign role in its tragic past, and its safety.

This is not a run-around-and-do stuff town. There is an abandoned French hillstation in the clouds of Bokor Hill, some caves with Buddhist shrines, river rapids and plantations that grow probably the finest pepper in the world. It is not a party town. There are no girl-bars. It is a lay back and chill-out place.

It wasn’t always so. The mountains around here were the last stronghold of the notorious Khmer Rouge, which kidnapped four foreigners from a train and executed them as late as 1998. It is an area that has seen much pain and tragedy and is pulling itself up by its bootstraps. Which makes the killing of  Ophélie Begnis on February 9 this year more than a crime, it is a local tragedy that is being felt deeply.

That evening Begnis, who was on holiday with two friends, left a party at a guesthouse called Les Manguiers riding a bicycle. The next day her naked body, half of her face battered and hacked beyond recognition, her arms showing signs of defensive wounds caused by a machete, was found in the river.

The bicycle was missing. Following a police interview interview with two boatmen and ‘a woman’, the bicycle was recovered.

camboatFew clues to the killer were found in the months that followed. A number of people, Cambodian and foreigner, were detained and released. Forensic scientists and police personnel from France joined the investigation, checking a number of the riverboats used for taking tourists along the river.

Local sources say that Van Den Bogaert left Cambodia for Thailand, where his ex-girlfriend and  toddler daughter live. He was arrested after he returned to Kampot on April 24.

Van Den Bogaert had come to Kampot three years ago after losing his job in Belgium, and with his Thai girlfriend Nahm, set up a riverside bar called ‘Olly’s Place’ which offered Belgian beers, kayaking on the river and grass-hut ‘bungarooms’ for accommodation.

ollyIn an online interview in September 2012, Building A New Life In Cambodia, Van Den Bogaert said: “I believe that if you can adapt yourself to a new way of life it will be the most rewarding experience you will ever have.” But earlier this year he announced on his Facebook page that he had become disenchanted after personal problems and decided to move to Ecuador after selling the bar.

The arrest of  Van Den Bogaert came as a surprise. He had been questioned a month before and released.  He is well known to the expatriate community, which is refusing to talk to the media. Most are long-term residents who see the town as their home and are reluctant to say anything that will further damage its reputation and its tourism industry.

Van Den Bogaert appeared at the Kampot Court of First Instance on April 26 and was charged with premeditated murder, which includes rape, and will remain in custody until trial later this year. By law he must be tried within the next four to six months. If found guilty he could face 20 years in a Cambodian jail.

Kampot Murder Investigation: The DNA Issue

The Kampot Murder: The Chilling Price of Innocence

The Kampot Murder: The Mystery of the Red-Headed Woman

Cambodia Murder Investigation: Update From Kampot

More stories from Bob Couttie

 

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16 Responses to Dispatch From Cambodia: Murder In A Sleepy Town

  1. William Montgomery says:

    Do you know what the evidence is against Van Den Bogaert? Has anything been revealed to this point?

  2. Bob Couttie says:

    The suspect is in court again today. Reports citing Van Den Bogaerts’s lawyer says that he denies knowing the victim and denies murdering her.

    The main evidence is a witness who allegedly saw a man looing like Van Den Bogaert, dressed in an Adidas jacket, dumping the bicycle in the river. Van Den Bogaert says the jacket was given away some time before.

    It is not known whether DNA evidence will be produced. Cambodia doesn’t have the facilities for DNA analysis but French forensic investigators were involved.

    Cambodia’s system is somewhat similar to the French and uses an investigating magistrate. The latter is hearing the evidence and the defence and the prosecution and will decide whether to dismiss charges or go to a full trial hearing.

    • Patrick H. Moore says:

      I’ve heard about those countries that use an investigating magistrate. Very different from U.S. and I believe British system. Can’t speak for British system but in U.S. system defense and prosecution often make little effort to actually get at the “truth” but rather advocate extreme positions which sometimes have little relationship to the what actually happened.

  3. Bob Couttie says:

    @Patrick, in theory the investigation magistrate is independent and can gather evidence, interview witnesses etc., examine defence and prosecution. In practice they often work closely with the prosecution in Cambodia. In the ‘Anglo-Saxon alliance’ countries, yes, the process is adversarial from the start. I’ll be looking at the system in a later dispatch.

    • Patrick H. Moore says:

      I see. I suppose that can be a problem with a system in which a single entity (person) and his investigators look (in theory) at both sides of the situation. There could well be a tendency for the magistrate to favor one side over the other. We get that here in the states with many trial judges who transparently favor the prosecution. Other judges, however, give you a fair trial.

      • SB says:

        I feel that since this crime took place involving an expatriate and a foreigner, that the investigative magistrate must feel pressure to prosecute, whether or not the evidence exists to support these charges.

        • Patrick H. Moore says:

          You make a good point. How could the investigative magistrate not feel compelled to try and build a case against the accused given these circumstances, unless, of course, the evidence is very flimsy.

  4. […] Blog posted , “Murder in a Small Town”, by reporter Bob Couttie in which the ex-pat journalist describes the murder investigation of Ophélie Begni, “a 25 year old French holidaymaker” who was brutally murdered on February 9, 2013 in […]

  5. Wanda says:

    Heeft er nog iemand nieuw over het verloop hiervan wat gebeurt er met Olivier Van den Bogaert we krijgen hier in België weinig of geen nieuws

    • Bob Couttie says:

      At the moment there is a lot of gossip but not much hard information. When information is confirmed there will be an update. Currently investigatory hearing are going on and no decision has been taken yet whether to dismiss or go for trial.

  6. David says:

    I lived with Oliver in a dormroom 20 years ago; I was shocked to see his face on the frontpage of the newspapers. I really hope he didn’t do it! Hope the trial goes fair!

  7. […] Dispatch From Cambodia: Murder In A Sleepy Town […]

  8. […] Dispatch From Cambodia: Murder In A Sleepy Town […]

  9. ellen says:

    We stayed a week at ollys place in 2011. A friend who is travelling in kampot now told me the awful news. What was the outcome of the law case? What happened to olivier?

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