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Bitter memories for acquitted CFF suspects

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bitter.jpg

When Chu Trie returned to Cambodia in 1994 after 18 years in France the last

thing he expected was to land in jail accused of being an enemy of the state.

The fact that his near 12-month prison stretch was the result of being in the

wrong place at the wrong time made it all the more galling.

Chu Trie Puth Siem

"I missed

Cambodia very much. That was why I returned to work," said the former president

of a Siem Reap streetkids NGO.

Trie's life changed November 17 last year,

the day he paid a visit to Yon Soksan. He had gone to Soksan's house to ask his

son for help to repair his mobile phone, and found himself in a seemingly

interminable nightmare.

It was a week before the Cambodian Freedom

Fighter's botched coup attempt, when the CFF was little more than a rumor.

Military police surrounded Soksan's house with a warrant for his arrest; Trie

and Soksan's relative, 48-year-old Puth Siem, were taken in for good measure.

While Soksan was convicted of CFF involvement in the June trial, the

other two men maintained they knew nothing about his supposed CFF

activities.

"I had known Soksan for only two months. I'd heard of the CFF

activities along the border in the newspapers, but I had never had any contact

with them," said Trie after his release.

Siem, an army major and former

Khmer Rouge soldier, said he too knew nothing of Soksan's CFF

involvement.

"When they arrested me they didn't handcuff me. They asked

me to accompany Soksan to the military police HQ and asked me to testify. They

said I had nothing to do with the CFF," he said.

The two were finally

released November 9 after the Municipal Court ruled that they had been

unlawfully arrested and found that there was no evidence against them. In the

meantime they said they suffered the harsh deprivations of prison meted out

particularly to CFF suspects.

"Living conditions in the prison were so

bad I can't talk about them. The government's aim was to oppress the CFF

suspects. Relationships between prisoners and our families were banned, and even

pencils and paper were taken away from us," said Trie. When his wife came from

France to see him, she was not allowed entry to the prison.

"Our cell was

three-and-a-half by seven meters with twelve prisoners and only one toilet. The

water is the most difficult thing: it is not clean. It contains dregs that cause

skin rashes for the prisoners. There is not enough water to flush out [human

waste in] the toilet," said Trie.

Prisoners were not given enough to eat

and when their families brought them extra food the guards would always take a

share. Trie said he survived on the generosity of other prisoners who shared

what little they had.

Despite the appalling conditions, Trie was not

concerned at the outcome of the trial.

"I never imagined I was guilty -

that was why I felt no fear. At the court I testified without fear at all and

always smiled. I really had anger [about my arrest] but who am I going to tell

about it?" he asked.

Others, he said, were not so lucky.

"I want

to appeal to the government to give pardons to those who were cheated into

fighting. They did not even know their way around Phnom Penh. They are poor,

just living from hand to mouth," Trie claimed, describing the convicted men as

"pitiful".

Siem agrees that a number of those convicted were

innocent.

"From my lifetime of experience as a soldier I can say that

some people convicted really were CFF fighters but others were only tricked;

they did not even know how to use a weapon."

The men celebrated their

release with their first good meal in a year and are staying with their lawyer

until they can return to their former lives.

"I have the right to protest

against the government's treatment of me. I will consult my lawyer about lodging

a complaint of illegal detention," said Trie.

But as difficult as prison

was, Trie knows that life in rural Cambodia is also tough. His greatest worry

was for his NGO, Angkor Farmer, which instructs children on morality and teaches

them Khmer, English, French and Angkorean history.

"What I worried about

most is that I might lose funding for my organization. [It] has two goals:

teaching children respect and combating sexual exploitation. However, I don't

know what has happened since I was arrested," he explained.

Siem also

hopes to return to his life as it was a year ago. "I want to return to my unit

and work as normal if my commander will accept me. If not, I'll have to find a

new job with an NGO. My life has been changed by this. I was innocent; [what has

happened] is indescribable," he said.

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