ATHAI national accused of laying land mines along Cambodia’s border with Thailand is set to be sentenced by a military court this week, his lawyer said Monday, renewing questions over whether either country has been involved in placing new mines in disputed areas.
Suphap Vong Pakna was arrested last February in Oddar Meanchey province after he allegedly entered Cambodian territory and planted land mines.
In a hearing last week, Suphap Vong Pakna confessed to planting at least five explosive devices, saying Thai soldiers paid him to do so, his Cambodian lawyer said.
“He tried to lay the land mines because he wanted to kill Cambodian people who patrol the border,” said Sam Sokong, a court-appointed lawyer with the Cambodian Defenders Project.
Sam Sokong said his client was among a group of at least seven people, but was the only one arrested.
“He confessed he entered Cambodia twice. The second time, he was arrested and then sent to military court,” Sam Sokong said.
Suphap Vong Pakna faces charges – including attempted murder, endangering national security and entering the country illegally – that could see him sentenced to between 15 and 30 years in prison if convicted, Sam Sokong said.
Our policy is to work together ... to remove these land mines. we don't have a policy to lay more."
However, the lawyer said he plans to ask for leniency when the court reconvenes as expected on Friday.
“Suphap is like a victim,” Sam Sokong said. “Due to his poverty and low education, he sacrificed his life for money without knowing that laying mines is criminal.”
In October 2008, the Thai government said two of its paramilitary rangers were severely injured after stepping on land mines in territory near Preah Vihear temple that Thailand claims as its own.
A Thai investigation reportedly found Russian-made land mines in the area – devices the Thais said were recently planted and of a type that Thai soldiers have never used. Thai authorities said the findings suggested that Cambodia may have been guilty of breaking the 1997 Ottawa Treaty, which bans signatories from using antipersonnel mines.
“The Royal Thai government views the sad land mine incident with great alarm, as it indicates violation” of the Ottawa Treaty, an October 17, 2008 statement from Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated.
Cambodia, however, said any land mines in the area were remnants of three decades of war. Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said Monday that Thailand has yet to respond to a diplomatic note rejecting the allegations.
“Cambodia has never planted fresh land mines. We are trying to clear the mines,” Koy Kuong said.
“Even Cambodian people right now suffer from land mines. Cambodia has been committed to demining, not only in the country, but also abroad in areas like Sudan.”
He said the Thai government should respond to the allegations raised by Suphap Vong Pakna’s prosecution.
“The Thai side should acknowledge what happened, if a Thai national confessed he planted land mines along the border,” he said.
Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn declined to comment on the court case, saying the issue should be decided through “normal legal channels”.
Thailand, he said, has not been involved in planting new land mines.
“The area has a lot of land mines to be retrieved. Our policy is to work together with the Cambodians to remove these land mines,” he said.
“We don’t have a policy to lay more land mines.”
Leng Sochea, deputy secretary of the Cambodian Mine Action Authority, said that officials are not aware of any other allegations that new land mines are being planted in the area.
The heavily mined areas between Cambodia and Thailand represent the highest concentration of land mines in the Kingdom, according to the group Landmine Monitor.