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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Weapons and dead men

Weapons and dead men

MARCH 17-18 - While there were few surprises during Prince Norodom Ranariddh's second

absentia military court trial in two weeks, many aspects were downright odd.

Observers called the trial "as farcical as the first one". For the record,

Ranariddh was sentenced to 30-years' jail and fined $54 million in damages, all subsequently

erased under a Royal pardon three days later.

Ranariddh's co-defendants on charges of conspiring with the Khmer Rouge to "destroy

the government and the population" - Nhek Bun Chhay, Serey Kosal and Chao Sambath

- were also found guilty, though Sambath is long since dead, executed after the July

coup.

Sambath was mentioned in court once as "living in self-exile", and another

time as "having escaped Phnom Penh".

London-based human rights group Amnesty International called the trial of Sambath

"poor man's theater".

The case was opened on May 19 - nearly a week before the seizure of weapons in Sihanoukville

which led to Ranariddh's first prosecution, and nearly seven weeks before the July

fighting which was the focus of the original summons on the case.

The original Aug 8 trial summons pointed to crimes committed in early July, but the

trial focused on alleged crimes dating back to 1996.

Only 13 of the 21 witnesses present actually testified. Several appeared to be so

nervous they misquoted their own age, and at least one admitted before the trial

that he was given money by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Eight others were to testify but the proceedings ended early when Prosecutor Sao

Sok said there was already enough evidence. Judge Ney Thol agreed, prompting one

legal observer to say: "Unbelievable! But not in a Cambodian court".

Witness Noun Sareth, 40, chief investigator for the department of intervention police,

blamed Bun Chhay for masterminding the murder of Hun Sen's brother-in-law, Kov Samuth

in 1996, and for attacking a Sihanoukville radio station, after Ney Thol asked him

to say more "about the cruelties committed by Nhek Bun Chhay".

Nothing more was said about this revelation into Samuth's murder. Sam Rainsy's bodyguard

Srun Vong Vannak, who was already convicted of masterminding it, remains in jail.

Star prosecution witness Tum Sambol, a two-star general who was close to Ranariddh

until the coup, appeared nervous, repeatedly clearing his throat and sweating.

Sambol said that Funcinpec was bolstering its military position in the lead-up to

the July fighting. "After the [March 1996 Funcinpec] congress at Sihanoukville,

Prince Ranariddh ordered Bun Chhay and Ho Sok to mobilize troops to counter-balance

the CPP. I had seen the troops, but I did not know where they were from.

"I noticed that a number of them were Khmer Rouge."

Most of the other witnesses pointed to a similar military buildup, while others linked

the Prince and his military supporters to failed policies that led to confrontation

and destruction.

In one peculiar moment, Ney Thol asked for the clerk to read the file of Secretary

of State for the Interior Ho Sok, who was executed while being detained in the Interior

Ministry following the coup.

When clerk Pol Pon said after an awkward silence that he could not find the file,

Thol said that he had already seen the background information and did not need it

anyway.

Ho Sok was not convicted, even though evidence was given to implicate him, because

the case was annulled on Dec 11, some five months after his death.

All the evidence - the photos, the weapons, the testimonies - were enough to convince

the court.

Nhek Bun Chhay and Serey Kosal, both of whom survived in July to continue their fight

in Prince Ranariddh's name, were sentenced in absentia to the same 20-year sentence

as Chao Sambath.

After the verdict was read, a handful of soldiers casually removed the weaponry which

had been evidence and threw them into the open bed of a truck parked outside the

courtroom.

Aging rifles, "Khmer Rouge uniforms", gas tanks, weapons cartridges and

small artillery clattered on the bed of the truck. One soldier hit another one in

the head with a small cannon, almost knocking him over.

Behind him sat the largest piece of evidence, a large semi-camouflaged green truck

with a radio transmitter in back - which authorities said Funcinpec had used to communicate

with the Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng - with three Playboy bunny stickers on the front.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Defense Ministry, some of the 180-plus gendarmes

and military police were departing in a more professional manner.

While several of them said they had come of their own accord, they left in a caravan

of about 100 in two trucks, four jeeps and two cars.

For those feeling lost within the peculiarities of the court system, the president

of the Cambodian Bar Council Say Bory offered an explanation.

"For me things are very simple. It is politics that runs things."

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