NUMEROUS legal observers have criticized Prince Norodom Ranariddh's conviction as
part of a "show trial" and a "politicized farce".
Neither Ranariddh nor his co-defendants Nhek Bun Chhay and Thach Suong were represented
in their absence.
Resistance commander Bun Chhay said a trip to Phnom Penh would be more dangerous
than staying on the malaria-ridden battlefields of O'Smach.
The fact that the trial was held at a building in the Ministry of Defense, rather
than at the military court house "brought to mind the words show trial",
according to one Western legal observer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"It wasn't a fair trial. I don't think anyone expected it to be," said
one rights worker. "The interesting thing is that they wanted the world to witness
an unfair judicial procedure."
He said that many within the international community had accepted from the beginning
that Ranariddh should be tried, convicted and pardoned.
"The fundamental right to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise was conspicuous
only by its absence...
"The lamentable weaknesses of Cambodia's judicial system are well known. This
situation is not going to improve if people simply accept that every judicial proceeding
is simply something to be got through then ignored."
Many pointed out that those implicated in serious rights violations - such as grenade
attacks and executions - are never brought to court.
"The only trials which proceed promptly are those for which there is a political
agenda. It is one more example among many of the lack of judicial independence. What
kind of message does this send to the Cambodian people?"
Kingdom of Cambodia Bar Association President Say Bory said: "You know yourself
that it is all prepared.... I don't think there will be any surprises."
Bory, who represented Rana-riddh's half-uncle, Prince Norodom Sirivudh in a similar
1996 trial that was also labeled a "politically-motivated farce", was one
of many who suggested that a conviction was certain before the trial even began.
Others said they expect a similar conviction at the Prince's next court date March
Bory refused the military court when it asked him to designate one of his lawyers
to defend the Prince. "The Prince specifically said he did not want one,"
Other legal observers said that the judges seemed to come to conclusions that did
not seem certain given the evidence.
No evidence was given that the prince actually bought the weapons or that he personally
transported them into Cambodia, nor that he moved them once in Cambodia, said one
"Technically, [Ranariddh] is innocent. They all are," he said. "From
a legal standpoint, the evidence does not correlate with the charges and with the
conviction. They were convicted of buying and transporting illegal weapons. I didn't
hear anything that established that they bought these weapons in Cambodia. I didn't
hear anything that established that they were involved in transporting...weapons
"Those movements were all authorized [after the initial seizure].
"The only unauthorized movement were the weapons moving in Cambodian waters,"
he said of the weapons which originated in Poland.
"They weren't doing it themselves.... These are legal technicalities but this
is the law. The law doesn't prohibit implication."
He also noted the intimidating presence of Gendarmes and other military officials
in the court room. "You saw all those beige shirts there. I believe they did
not choose to be there. They were ordered to be there."
Testimony from the most anticipated witness - Ranariddh's former military adviser,
General Tum Sambol, who was absent with the judge's permission - came in written
Observers said it was impossible to know whether Sambol - who reportedly lived in
Ranariddh's residence for several months after the fighting - had actually written
the letter himself, or what might have convinced him to testify against his former
Bory - who says he received death threats on the eve of the Sirivudh trial in which
he did not put up a defense - said: "We can imagine all kinds of things. We
don't know what kind of testimony there might be. When there is a total absence of
defense, they can do what they want.
"If you think there is a chance that the court will be fair, you defend [but]
the Prince would know. If he says it isn't fair, why should he take part?"
Sambol - who was alternately rumored to have moved to the CPP's side on July 7 after
his life was threatened, or to have been a CPP-mole for many months before the July
coup - could not be reached abroad in Australia, but was expected to return to Cambodia
before the next trial.
His letter read, in part: "On May 25 I was ordered by [Prince] Ranariddh to
go to Sihanoukville port with General Nhek Bun Chhay to pick up weapons. On May 26,
Nhek Bun Chhay and I went to Sihanoukville by chopper. At that time all the military
equipment was being examined by the mixed inspection committee... After the negotiations,
the military equipment was sent to Phnom Penh."
An undisclosed number of the 78 crates of weapons - reportedly ordered from Poland
on Feb 3, 1997 - were later turned over to Bun Chhay after he came to an agreement
with the co-Defense Ministers to hold onto, but not use, the guns, Ney Thol said.
When the fighting erupted in July, many of the weapons were purportedly taken into
battle by Bun Chhay's forces.
Bory said the real trial, that of international opinion about the court case, would
take place through the airwaves and in newspapers as the government attempted to
convince people of the Prince's guilt. "I think that the role of the media is
what is important," he said.
Khmer media had already been busy on the eve of the trial.
All six Khmer-language television stations showed videotaped footage - reportedly
on government orders - of Funcinpec troop activities in the capital in early July.
The tapes appear to have been broadcast as part of a campaign to prepare public opinion
for a verdict of guilt. TV commentators claimed the tapes were proof of Ranariddh's
conspiracy to overthrow its coalition partner, the CPP.
Members of the opposition and several diplomats, unimpressed by the footage as evidence
of the Prince's guilt, said that the showing en masse of the videotapes on the eve
of the trial only proved that the government had full control of the airwaves as
well as the courts.
Faxed statements and electronic mail transmissions from Funcinpec members around
the world, opposition leader Sam Rainsy suppporters and human rights groups flowed
into Phnom Penh to debunk the first of two trials before the Prince was convicted.
One typical Funcinpec statement denounced Hun Sen's "political games geared
toward his dictatorship", while other statements from a pre-trial media counter-offensive
included verbal attacks from as far away as Bangkok, the US, France and Australia.
Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch Asia both issued pre-trial statements
saying that the Prince would not receive a fair trial in the present political climate
of harassment and murder.