An investigating judge has dropped charges against five men who have been locked in pretrial detention since ashes, said to belong to Buddha, were stolen last December – but they are not free to leave prison.
A prosecutor said yesterday he has appealed the judge’s decision to dismiss the case, meaning the accused – four security guards from the Oudong Mountain temple where the theft occurred, and a villager who lives nearby – will remain in prison indefinitely.
“By law, they cannot be released from jail until a decision on the appeal has been made,” Kandal provincial prosecutor Ouk Kimseth said yesterday. “But it will be [decided] soon.”
He declined to comment on his reasons for lodging the appeal.
Lim Sokuntha, the investigating judge, told the Post on October 31 that he had finalised his case against the five. He would not comment on the case yesterday, calling the matter a “secret of the court profession”, but still referred questions to the prosecutor.
The five were arrested after a golden urn, said to contain ashes of the Buddha, was among items stolen from Oudong Mountain on December 9.
The men were charged after other statues stolen from Oudong were allegedly found in the home of Pha Sokhem, the chief security guard.
The Buddha relics were later found in the home of 24-year-old Keo Reaksmey in Takeo province. Reaksmey was arrested along with gold seller Siek Sareth, 39, who is accused of buying stolen goods from him.
Sareth has already been tried, but does not yet know her fate after the court delayed the announcement of her verdict on November 12.
Reaksmey has yet to go to trial but has appeared as a witness in Sareth’s trial.
The five men, however, have not appeared in court since an initial hearing immediately after their arrest nearly one year ago. It remains unclear whether their case still relates at all to the theft of the urn containing the Buddha’s ashes.
Sieng Chamroeun, 35, daughter of jailed guard Sieng Sarin, said her father and his co-accused received letters on November 21 informing them of the judge’s decision to release them. The men and their families were now struggling to understand why the case was being appealed and they were not free.
“The judge has dropped the charges.… It is damn difficult to understand why there is now an appeal. My father is innocent,” she said.
Despite the confusion, legal expert Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project, said it was not that uncommon for a prosecutor to appeal an investigating judge’s decision.
“But, yes, it can mean longer in prison [for defendants],” he said.
In one case Sam Oeun had been involved in, a client of his spent an extra six months in prison before the Court of Appeal ruled in his favour and released him, he said.
Another example of such an appeal, Sam Oeun added, had occurred in a murder case against two men – his namesake, Sok Sam Oeun, and Born Samnang – who spent years in prison wrongfully accused of killing union leader Chea Vichea in 2004.
A case against wanted former Bavet town governor Chhouk Bandith was also ordered back to court early last year after a prosecutor appealed a judge’s decision to drop charges. Bandith was later sentenced to prison for shooting three garment workers in February 2012, but remains at large.
According to NGO the International Centre for Prison Studies (ICPS), the percentage of Cambodia’s prison population that has yet to be fully tried by a court currently stands at about 60 per cent, making the Kingdom one of the most frequent users of pre-trial detention in the region.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SHANE WORRELL