Cambodian Cham Sman Esma El, 24, and Thai Muslims Abdul Azi Haji Chiming, 35, and Muhammad Yalaludin Mading, 41, face life in prison for allegedly plotting to bomb the American and British embassies in Phnom Penh.
T he three men convicted of plotting to bomb the US and British embassies are appealing the Phnom Penh municipal court's decision to sentence them each to life imprisonment.
Kao Soupha, defence lawyer for the two Thai nationals and one Cambodian Cham Muslim, said he made an official appeal application for his clients on January 12.
"Up until this hour I still say that my clients are innocent," Soupha said.
Thai Muslims Abdul Azi Haji Chiming, 35, and Muhammad Yalaludin Mading, 41, and Cambodian Cham Sman Esma El, 24, were found guilty of conspiring to commit terrorism after a one-day trial on December 28. A fourth suspect at the trial, Egyptian Esam Mohamid Khadr Ali, was set free.
Legal experts said the trial had obvious irregularities in its judicial process. However, the US Embassy strongly praised the verdict as "an important step in fighting terrorism in Southeast Asia".
Human rights groups and observers remain concerned with the illegal length of the suspects' pre-trial detention period and the lack of evidence the three verdicts were based on.
It is illegal to detain a suspect for longer than six months without trial. However, all four suspects were held for 20 months.
The prosecuting evidence presented at court was a single statement made by 29-year-old moto driver Than Lundy. Lundy said he overheard an English conversation between two other JI suspects about a plot to bomb the embassies. Cross-examination revealed Lundy was unable to speak English.
Amnesty International's Daniel Alberman said they remain "extremely concerned" about the fairness of this trial.
"Given the international and political pressures in this case, there is a strong risk that the men who were convicted have been imprisoned on evidence that would not be considered of sufficient weight in normal circumstances," Alberman said.
"Heavy-handed and arbitrary treatment of 'terrorist' suspects only serves to alienate the Muslim community in Cambodia," the organisation said in a September 2004 public statement about the excessive pre-trial detention. "Once again, the Cambodian judicial system stands in the dock along with the defendants in this case."
Sok Sam Oeun, director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said he was surprised at the US stance, but not at the Cambodian judicial system. "This is not strange for me," he said. "Always there is no justice - if there was justice maybe this would be strange for me. If the trial is fair, I will praise the judge and write him a letter, but it is not.
"I am a little bit surprised because it is better for [the US] to look at the process and not the result - and there is something wrong with the process here."
As well as the moto-taxi driver's testimony, prosecuting evidence in the trial included references to an instructional bomb-making VCD, yet no such evidence was ever entered into the court's record.
A Khmer translation of a US Central Intelligence Agency report detailing suspected JI activities in the region was read at the trial. The Cambodian government originally arrested the men based on the reports contents.
Sam Oeun is concerned that this instance of judicial incompetence sets a bad precedent for the Cambodian court system to follow.
"We always criticise the court for basing evidence on the statement of an absent witness. If anybody praises this trial based on the statement of the absent witness, then this doesn't encourage the Cambodian system to change or improve," he said.
A legal advisor, who declined to be named in case it damaged his ability to work in Cambodia, is upset with the US position, calling it a display of "hypocrisy".
He said on one hand the US have been vocal in condemning the over-detention of suspects in the separate Chea Vichea murder case, but in the same instance the US fully welcomed the JI trial's outcome.
"These two separate pieces of information send the wrong signal to the Cambodian government [that] when a trial is politically important you can bend the rules," the advisor said.
US Embassy spokesperson Heide Bronke said they continue to welcome the result of the JI trial. When asked whether the US had any concerns at all about the trial process, she said she doesn't "have any comments other than the statement we made last week".
That statement, released after the court verdict, said: "The United States welcomes these convictions, which constitute an important step in fighting terrorism in Southeast Asia. We also want to express our appreciation for the government of Cambodia's cooperation in the fight against international terrorism."
Cambodian-based human rights groups have been reluctant to comment on the fairness of the trial or the strong US praise for the verdicts.
In 2003 the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee issued a statement urging the court to try the case quickly, but Kao Soupha said since then the groups have been relatively silent.
"Human Rights groups went quiet after that because they are funded by the US and as the US is the largest democracy in the world, [HR groups] have to follow them," Soupha explained.
Soupha, however, said he admired former King Sihanouk for "paying attention to this issue and criticising the suspects sentencing without a fair trial". Sihanouk expressed his concerns on his personal website this month.
The Cham Muslim community from Sman Esma El's home town of Kampot are presently gathering together thumb prints on a letter to be sent to King Norodom Sihamoni in a show of support for Esma El.
The Thai embassy spokesperson, Songchai Chapatiyut, said he is unable to comment on the Cambodian court process in relation to this trial.
"We try to do our best to provide protection for our nationals, but of course we have to be in compliance with the law of Cambodia. We have reported back to Bangkok about the verdict of the trial, and we are waiting for the appeal court process," he said.