A line-up of the accused, picturing Kim Sen and Meas Minear, third and fourth from left
RIGHTS workers, diplomats, lawyers and well-wishers partied into the night on a Sihanoukville
beach on the evening of July 21, as Licadho employees Kim Sen and Meas Minear celebrated
the withdrawal of all charges against them in the toxic waste demonstration trial.
Relaxing with their families after eight grueling months preparing for the trial,
Minear and Sen wandered among the guests thanking each personally for their contribution,
and expressed their delight at being freed.
"I thought if the judge was fair I would win ... because I had done nothing
wrong," said Kim Sen grinning.
The trial ended dramatically on Wednesday afternoon, when prosecutor Chhun Ngorn
announced that owing to lack of evidence, all charges against the two rights workers
would be dropped. The two were accused of inciting December's two-day riots, which
erupted after 3,000 tonnes of toxic waste were dumped near Sihanoukville town.
Eight other defendants, who were accused of theft and property damage, were also
Observers at the trial were surprised at the sudden end to the three-day proceedings.
"[Before this afternoon] we feared that power would prevail over justice,"
said Dr Lao Mong Hay of the Khmer Institute for Democracy. "But this is a step
forward for Cambodian justice."
"It's a major step forward if the innocent can be acquitted in a high-profile
case like this," said Steve Heder, representing Amnesty International. "It
shows if a proper, vigorous defense is permitted, the truth will out."
Indeed, the persistence of the defense lawyers in arguing procedural points proved
to be the key to the outcome of the trial. In a strongly worded 20-minute argument,
Prosecutor Ngorn was insistent that statements from absent witnesses be permitted
as evidence, while the defense argued that this was against the law. The missing
witnesses were mainly local officials, whose testimony apparently would have named
ring-leaders of the demonstration.
However, Judge Tak Kimsea ruled in favor of the defense, and the statements were
Ka Savuth, lawyer for former Sihanoukville governor Kim Bo, whose house was ransacked
during the December demonstrations, was clearly furious at the decision.
"I am so sorry that these people [the absent witnesses] were not present at
the hearing," he said angrily. "They were so strong and clear about the
names of the suspects [before the trial] but when the hearing started they did not
dare to come."
Observers and human rights officials had earlier expressed fears that political pressure
may have been exerted on witnesses to testify against the rights workers.
But one insider at the hearing noted that Kim Sen and Meas Minear were popular figures
in the town who had worked with both the police and military police in the past,
and suggested that this was the likely cause of the reluctance of various officials
to testify against them.
Perhaps the only man present who was not surprised at the outcome of the case was
the prosecutor himself, who implied to the Post that he knew from day one he could
not get a conviction.
"After the first day of the trial, I realized it was not going to be easy to
prosecute..." he said, "because we did not have any concrete evidence".
Asked why the trial came to court at all, bearing in mind the lack of evidence, Ngorn
evaded the question.
"We had three kinds of witnesses, neutral, prosecution and defense," he
said. "After the first two days of the trial, when some [prosecution] witnesses
did not turn up, we tried to find them to bring them to court ... but they still
did not come."
Rights workers and lawyers who followed the case were keen to point out that despite
the positive outcome, they were still plenty of procedural errors that should have
prevented the case ever coming to court.
"The prosecutor, as the investigating authority, was aware that there was nothing
to implicate these two men. They should have dropped the case as soon as it became
clear that there was no evidence," said Robert O Weiner, Director of Protection
at the lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which sent a representative from Hong
Kong to observe the trial.
Since the day Minear and Sen were arrested, Licadho, Human Rights Watch, the Lawyers
Committee and others have complained of procedural errors, including failure to produce
arrest warrants and withholding evidence from the defense for long periods of time.
As the verdict was announced in court, Kim Bo's representative, Ban Sarom, sat thoughtfully
outside, and mused on the outcome. Kim Bo had requested $444,168 in compensation
for the damage caused to his house. The judge ruled that $294,168 would be paid by
local authorities, saying later there was no proof that the other $150,000 had been
in the house at the time. In addition, Camsab, whose offices were also raided in
the riots, was awarded $150,000, having requested $214,880.
"Following the law if you have no evidence you cannot win," he said, "but
some of [the defendants] obviously destroyed HE Kim Bo's property.
"I am going now to discuss the possibility of appeal with Kim Bo."
Under Cambodian law, even if the charges are dropped, the prosecution can still take
the case to an appeal court.
But Kim Bo's lawyer was less sure about trying to continue the case.
"No," he grumbled, when asked whether he would take the case to appeal.
"If [the witnesses] do not even show up in the court of Sihanoukville where
they live, they certainly won't show up in the appeal court in Phnom Penh".