The merits of drug, attempted murder and forgery charges brought against two Khmer Krom monks arrested last August were weighed in Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday afternoon.
Dav Tep and Chea Vanda were arrested and defrocked on August 1 after police searched their lodgings in a Por Sen Chey district pagoda and claimed to discover women’s underwear, weapons, condoms and drugs.
At the time, district governor Hem Darith said the search had been triggered by allegations that Tep and Vanda had made death threats against a student then staying at the pagoda.
However, the student, who requested anonymity, told the Post a day after the arrests that authorities had forced him to sign his complaint against the monks and that he had asked to withdraw it when he saw the pair defrocked.
In court yesterday, Tep and Vanda’s lawyer Hom Sunrith challenged the legality of the initial search.
“Normally, when a room is searched, the suspect must be present and there must be a witness. But in this case, there was no witness and the owner of the room was not there,” said Sunrith.
The charges also allege the monks forged their ID cards. However, the Interior Ministry’s Identification Department issued a statement on Monday saying it could not be certain whether the IDs were fake or merely “irregular” in their production.
Three monks from Tep and Vanda’s former pagoda were present for the hearing in a show of support.
Vanda spent the duration of the day’s session smiling and casting knowing winks at the trio behind him, even trading laughs with the judge at one point.
As he was led from the holding cell to the courtroom, he affectionately patted reporters waiting in the corridor.
Son Chum Chuon, program director at Khmer Kampuchea Krom for Human Rights, spoke with the monks briefly through the bars of their cell. He said Vanda’s upbeat demeanour in the face of serious charges was a reflection of his conviction that he is innocent.
“They’re not scared. They believe they didn’t break the law so they don’t care,” said Chuon. “But maybe there’s no justice for them.”
Chuon also called into question the evidence against the pair and suggested the charges were politically motivated.
“Everything is based on the police report. The court did not do further investigation. So, it could be an invented report from the police. I think the intention is to discourage monks from getting involved in social work,” said Chuon. “It is just to break the spirit of Khmer Kampuchea Krom.”
The Khmer Krom are ethnic Khmer with origins in what is now southern Vietnam; the Vietnamese government has long been accused of persecuting its Krom minority.
At the time of Tep and Vanda’s arrest, it was suggested they were targeted over their involvement in protests outside the Vietnamese Embassy.
Defence lawyer Sunrith yesterday called for all charges to be dropped against his clients. A verdict is due on April 1.
Additional reporting by Jack Davies