BATTAMBANG JAIL - Mich Chhoeut sighed softly at his predicament, and briefly pinched
the bridge of his nose.
As Battambang's deputy investigating judge, it was his job to try and work out who
among his 15 prisoners might be guilty of having helped mastermind an armed mutiny
in Phnom Malai on Nov 11 and 12.
Some of them, surely, had to be responsible, at least to some degree?
"[They] have been questioned three times already," Chhoeut said. "Once
by Malai police and military police in Battambang, and a second time by the prosecutor
before they were sent here to jail. They'll have no problem answering my questions
because they'll have learnt from all the interviews they've done before."
Four of the accused terrorists were led from their cells to a shaded, open interview
area outside the prison.
But this first bunch seemed an unlikely one in which to find a terrorist.
One bent, grey-haired old man - with splendid tattoos across the hairline of his
forehead and also on his arm, scarred as it was by a year-old mine blast - shuffled
along in front. He was leading a blind man wearing thick black dirty glasses, guiding
himself by placing his hands on the old man's shoulders.
Chhoeut let the blind man find himself a seat. The grey-haired lead prisoner filed
into an adjoining room and the other two waited on the grass around the corner.
"What's your name?" Chhoeut asked the blind man, not unkindly.
"My name is Keo Sam Ol."
"Keo Sam Ol." Chhoeut wrote it down carefully in a book in front of him.
"Excuse me, brother," the blind man ventured. "What is the job of
the brother who is asking me this question?"
"I work at the court of Battambang."
"Oh. And who are the people on that side?" "They are journalists."
"Ah," said the blind man, grinning.
"Is your name Keo Sam Ol or Keo Ol?"
"It doesn't matter," the blind man replied brightly. "Whatever. Keo
Sam Ol or Keo Ol."
"Hmm. We'll use Keo Sam Ol," said Chhoeut, writing again. "You've
been accused of being involved with a terrorist act," the judge began. "You
can have a defender if you wish. What's your story?"
Sam Ol took a deep breath. He woke up at dawn Nov 12 to boil water for his baby and
cook porridge for his kids. Then bodyguards belonging to Mr. Thoeun, the commander
of Regiment 107 of Division 21, asked him about the political situation in Malai.
"I don't understand, I told them. What do you mean the political situation?"
He said the guard replied: "'What side do those men carrying guns in front of
you belong?' I said I didn't know. He said ëdoes the Sam Rainsy Party have any political
plan?' I said I didn't know, and I asked him back ëare there armed men carrying guns
in the street?' and he confirmed it as true. So I asked my son to take me to the
crowd in front of the pagoda."
Sam Ol continued: "When I arrived I heard a man named Ret, a deputy commander
of Division 21, asking the armed men ëwhat do you do this for?' The armed men replied
ëbecause we are going to get rice. We heard that the International Red Cross will
give us rice in Kbal Spean [a bridge in the village].' Ret asked ëon whose order?'
ëFuncinpec asks us to do this,' the armed men replied. ëIs the Sam Rainsy Party in
Boeng Beng [village] asking [people there] to do the same?' Ret asked the armed men.
"When I heard that question I interrupted Ret and said I should know if the
Sam Rainsy Party had an order to do that. And Ret said ëmaybe someone used the Sam
Rainsy Party name as a trick?'"
Sam Ol said he returned home. Then, at 3pm, a policeman arrived and said ëUncle,
brother Phon (commander of Div 21) and brother Samarn (chief of Malai police) told
me to ask you to meet them,' Sam Ol said.
By 6pm Sam Ol was arrested, handcuffed, loaded on a truck for Battambang "and
my children were crying and..."
"I know, I know that already," Chhoeut interrupted. "Did you hear
a whisper before the event of Nov 12?"
"No. I felt that maybe someone hates me and made trouble for me because I am
an activist member of the Sam Rainsy Party."
Chhoeut coughed. "That is your idea but the prosecutor has accused you of being
related with the terrorist activity. So you must try to solve this problem. I need
the truth which relates to the event. That is the important thing for you to do."
Sam Ol said local people had often heard that Funcinpec was going to give them rice.
But he didn't know about armed men destroying the district house "and if you
don't believe me go and ask my neighbor".
"Have you ever attended the CFF [Cambodian Freedom Fighters]?" Chhoeut
"No, no. It is not the G letter. It's C. Like ABC... CFF," Chhoeut said,
a bit snappily.
"Either G or C. I know nothing," the blind man said.
"[Malai authorities] listed [all the prisoners'] 15 names as members of the
CFF," Chhoeut said. "You had not been with them? Or maybe [Malai] made
out a fake report?," Chhoeut laughed.
"Oh, it sounds like this group are fighters?" Sam Ol said. "I'm blind.
How can I become a fighter like they are?"
"Believe me," Chhoeut replied. "The big bosses never carry B-40 guns
and fight at the front line. Never. But they carry pens and sit in air-conditioned
rooms and fight with ink. Anyway," he continued, "I just want to find out
Chhoeut then went inside the adjoinging room to question the elderly suspect, Kung
Chhel. But Chhel related pretty much the same story as Sam Ol.
"I grabbed an old sack and rushed out along with other villagers into the street
when I heard people around me saying they were going to get rice," Chhel said,
his head bent almost below the level of the table. "I didn't think I'd have
"What party are you?" asked Chhoeut. "Suramarit party," Chhel
shot back, naming King Sihanouk's father in confusion with his son. "What party?!"
"Suramarit," the old man gig-gled, a bit embarrassed. The judge nodded:
"Oh! Funcinpec party," he laughed, "you said something different."
Chhel and Sam Ol were eventually allowed to return to their cells, maintaining their
innocence. The judge still had another 13 more interviews to do.
Later, Chhoeut said that he was going to send a letter to the Minister of Justice
asking for advice on the case of the 15 men. "It is very difficult to proceed
with this case because the suspects live in Banteay Meanchey. I don't know why they
sent them here." He said that the Malai authorities may not have had enough
proof to arrest the men and that they should be sent back to Banteay Meanchey court.
"Generally, I'd never accept this kind of court case. Based on the rules, the
complete documentation is lacking 50% to arrest them." But, he reasoned, the
Malai authorities are not that familiar with the law.
The suspects could be sentenced up to 20 years in jail if they were found guilty,
Chhoeut said. "[But] perhaps they might be automatically released by the government
if [their crimes] are related to politics," he said. It all depends on the government,
he added softly.
"There is the story in Khmer," Chhoeut said: "Kat toh roch leuk toh,
kat heuy leuk, leuk heuy kat" - which translates ësentenced then amnestied...
already sentenced, already amnestied'. It means, very approximately, that there exists
in Cambodia a general state of judicial confusion, seasoned with politics and patronage;
where rules are rules until someone decides differently.
While Chhoeut is finding that the truth of what happened in Malai is hard to come
by, it is likely that someone in Battam-bang jail knows more than what they're letting
But maybe it's not old Chhel or the blind Sam Ol.
Or, then again, maybe it is?