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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Split verdict in terror trial

Split verdict in terror trial

Split verdict in terror trial

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split.jpg

A torturous 600-day ordeal ended for Egyptian Esam Mohamid Khadr Ali on December

29 when the Phnom Penh municipal court found him not guilty of conspiring to commit

terrorism.

Abdul Azi Haji Chiming (right), 35, and Yalaluding Madin (center), 41, both of Thailand, were sentenced to life in prison December 29 for their purported roles in a plot to bomb the American and British Embassies in Phnom Penh. Egyptian citizen Esam Mohamid Khidr Ali (left), 41, walked free. Three others were handed life sentences in absentia, including alleged terrorist mastermind Hambali.

One of three foreign Muslims originally arrested in May 2003 for suspected links

to Islamic militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, Ali, 40, maintained his innocence and

always believed justice would prevail.

"I am a good, honest man. I did nothing wrong. I asked myself again and again

'what did I do?'" he said. "Every day I sat waiting and when a policeman

came I thought I would be let out."

Ali arrived in Cambodia November 21, 2002, and began teaching at the Saudi-funded

Om-Alqura Institute in Kandal province where he was quickly promoted to director.

The police arrived six months later and arrested him.

"I wanted to know why, but later I realized I was being accused of plotting

to bomb the US and British embassies," said Ali.

Cambodian authorities accused nine men in total for the bomb plot and related terrorism

activities. Ali was the only man set free.

Thai Muslims Abdul Azi Haji Chiming, 35, and Muhammad Yalaludin Mading, 41, as well

as Cambodian Cham Sman Esma El, 24, were handed life sentences.

Three other suspects identified by the court as Ibrahim, Rousha Yasser and Riduan

Isamuddin - better known as Hambali, the alleged Southeast Asia JI boss - were tried

in absentia and also sentenced to life. Two suspects the court previously said were

being tried in absentia were not mentioned in the verdict.

Ali said he had met the two Thai suspects previously at the Om-Alqura Institute,

but had never met the other men.

"Hambali had visited Cambodia, but already left before I arrived."

Human rights observers and members of the Cambodian Cham community raised concerns

about the fairness of the trial.

While the suspects were detained for 20 months - far exceeding the maximum pretrial

detention period of six months allowed - the actual trial for all suspects lasted

just a day.

No evidence was produced at the trial and the prosecutor's case centered on the testimony

of 29-year-old moto-taxi driver, Than Lundy.

Lundy alleged he overheard a conversation in English between Hambali and Ibrahim

about a plot to bomb the embassies.

However, when asked for details of the conversation, Lundy told the court he did

not understand English.

Testimony included references to an instructional VCD on bomb making, but no such

VCD was entered into evidence.

It is believed the VCD, disguised as Thai soccer footage, was left in Cambodia by

Hambali.

Despite the lack of evidence, the US Embassy applauded the verdict.

"The United States welcomes these convictions, which constitute an important

step in fighting terrorism in Southeast Asia," said Heide Bronke, spokesperson

for the US Embassy in Phnom Penh. "We also want to express our appreciation

for the Royal Government of Cambodia's cooperation in the fight against international

terrorism."

Information reportedly supplied by the US government led to the arrests in May 2003.

After the initial three arrests, agents from America's Central Intelligence Agency

interrogated the detainees, the Post reported in June 2003.

At the time, the Cambodian government's actions drew praise from US authorities and

came just weeks before US Secretary of State Colin Powell was due to arrive in Phnom

Penh for an ASEAN Regional Forum.

Waiting on advice from Bangkok, a spokesman from the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh declined

to comment on the recent verdict.

Kao Soupha, lawyer for the three foreign suspects present at the trial, said he was

99 percent sure he would file an appeal on behalf of his Thai clients.

It is not known if Sman Esma, the convicted Cambodian, would appeal his life sentence.

Ali, Speaking from his hotel in Phnom Penh just hours after being released, was reluctant

to comment on the cases against his codefendants.

"I do not know about the other men. I got off and that was fair. I can only

suppose the others did something wrong because they have been sentenced."

Om Yentieng, advisor to PM Hun Sen and head of the government's human rights committee,

was pleased with the outcome of the case, but disappointed Ali was found innocent.

He warned if further evidence came to light, Ali would go back on trial.

But Ali said he is not afraid of facing further prosecution.

"They had 20 months to find evidence, but the time is over. If they had one

percent of evidence against me, then I would not be free," Ali said.

He was eager to get his passport back, which was confiscated when he was arrested,

but expressed confidence Cambodian police would return the document.

Ali said he was not yet sure of his plans. He said he likes the Cambodian culture

despite what has happened and would like to continue his work in education here,

but admitted Om Yentieng's comments had unsettled him.

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