Kandal Provincial Court erupted in cries yesterday morning as seven-year prison sentences were handed down to five men over the high-profile theft of a golden urn said to hold the Buddha’s remains.
In the long-awaited ruling, judge Say Samphos Serey said the men, who have spent some 20 months in pre-trial detention, were guilty of stealing the urn, which is said to hold the hair, teeth and bones of the Buddha, from a stupa on Oudong Mountain in December 2013.
In addition to the time behind bars, the men were ordered to pay 8 million riel (about $2,000) in compensation.
“If the accused are not satisfied [with the verdict], they have the right to file an appeal against the sentence within one month,” Samphos Serey told the court.
Only one of those convicted yesterday, 24-year-old farmer Keo Reaksmey, has confessed to the theft.
Reaksmey – who was arrested in February 2014 after neighbours in Takeo province reported that he had bought a car, motorbike and house in quick succession – has repeatedly insisted he worked alone to steal the relics after seeing them used during the funeral procession of late King Father Norodom Sihanouk.
In a hearing earlier this month, he recalled succeeding on his third attempt to steal the artefacts by using a nail puller, screwdriver, pliers, acid and gloves.
“I copied this method from a Chinese movie,” he told the court at the time.
The other four sentenced, stupa security guards Sieng Sarin, Chom Thai and Ka Sat, and chief security guard Pha Sokhem – who was absent from yesterday’s verdict as he was at the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital receiving treatment for liver disease – have maintained that they are guilty only of “negligence”.
Having been briefly acquitted by the court last November, the men’s charges were reinstated in December after an appeal by the prosecutor.
Following yesterday’s verdict, Sat and Sarin called out in unison: “It’s unjust.”
As he left the courtroom, Sat begged to be released.
“Please, our King and prime minister, help your children,” he said. “We are not the thieves. I myself need to earn money to support my family who are living in poor conditions. They rely on me.”
Sat went on to question the court’s decision to convict the guards in spite of Reasksmey’s admission of committing the crime unaided.
“When Keo Reaksmey told the court he’s the only thief, why would the court not let us guards be free, but leave us to spend more time in jail?” he asked.
“Since I’ve been in jail, my children have not been going to school very often. We don’t have any money; I am the only breadwinner in the family. It’s an injustice.”
Outside of the court, Sat’s pleas were echoed by cries of desperation from the guards’ loved ones.
“We are damn poor and sometimes we don’t even have rice to eat,” wept Thai’s daughter, 36-year-old Voeun Srey Leap.
“How can I earn the money to pay the court [the compensation]? He did not steal the relics or even touch them.”
But among the weeping families yesterday, one woman was smiling.
Seventy-three-year-old Say Ket’s son Kann Sopheak was among those facing trial for the theft.
He was acquitted in yesterday’s trial after having spent nearly two years in pre-trial detention – breaching the 18-month limit allowed under Cambodian law.
“My son was just drinking with the guards on that night [of the theft] and knew nothing about the relics,” she said. “Now he’s been released after spending nearly two years in prison. It was a mistake.”
But as she celebrated her son’s release, Ket warned: “I will not let him visit that mountain again”.