Two of seven convicts are appealing against their seven-year jail sentence for stealing a holy relic and 10 Buddha replicas in 2013 at Oudong Mountain in Kandal province’s Ponhear Leu district, on grounds that they are not guilty.
Chom Thai, 62, and Sieng Sarin, 58, are now having their appeal heard at the Supreme Court.
Thai said during Wednesday’s hearing that he had served as a security guard on the mountain since 2002 and cleaned the stupa every week, respecting the Buddha’s relic. However, the court charged him as an accomplice, although he has consistently denied being involved.
He told the judge that before the theft occurred, on December 10, 2013, he swept and cleaned the surrounding areas and saw that the lock to the room where the relic was kept was intact with nothing amiss.
Thai then went home to sleep, even though he should have been working. Around midnight, one of his colleagues informed him the lock had been broken and that the relic was stolen.
“I admit that the relic disappeared. [But] I have filed an appeal to the Supreme Court because I have not committed [any crime]. The court should free me,” Thai said.
Sarin, meanwhile, told the judge that he had also served as a guard, working there since 2006. On the day in question, he worked with the police to find the relic and Buddha replicas but was arrested anyway.
“I have not committed any crime. During the inspection of my house, police did not find the relic or any of the replicas. I didn’t know who the thieves were,” Sarin said.
Prosecutor Veng Buntheoun said the convicts had cooperated with authorities throughout the investigation and trial, and that the court should consider reducing the sentence meted out on five of them.
“I ask the presiding council to consider the punishment [meted on the convicts] because Keo Raksmey [another convict] is the perpetrator, and the court has given all six of them the same seven-year jail sentence,” he said.
Chheang Vantha, the defence lawyer for the two, said Raksmey, 24, admitted at the initial trial at Kandal Provincial Court in 2015 that he was the one who stole the Buddha replicas and relic, and that he acted alone.
Raksmey admitted, Vantha said, that he knew the Buddha replicas were made of gold, so he stole them along with the relic. Police later searched Raksmey’s house and found some stolen items, and found that he had bought a car with the proceeds of the crime.
“The gold covering those Buddha replicas was melted down and sold. He bought a car worth about $30,000 and spent about $50,000 in total. Both my clients had nothing to do with the crime. They are not involved. The presiding council should free them,” he said.
The relic and 10 replicas disappeared from the mountain on December 9, 2013. The Kandal provincial police force launched an investigation and later arrested four guards and one villager, Raksmey, on December 10.
The three other convicts judged to be involved in the theft apart from Raksmey, Thai and Sarin are Pha Sokhem, 59; Ka Sat, 46; and Kan Sopheak, 39. Sokhem died in prison in 2015 from a health condition.
After the investigation, on February 6, 2014, the authorities found the missing relic at Raksmey’s home in Takeo province’s Trang district, having already discovered the fate of the replicas.
A woman, Sieng Saret, 39, a jewellery seller at Prey Sandek Market in Trang district, was also arrested and the court sentenced her to two years in prison for buying the gold from Raksmey.
Kandal Provincial Court declared its verdict on August 27, 2015, sentencing all the accused to seven years in jail and fined eight million riel ($2,000) on the charge of stealing religious relics with aggravating circumstances.