The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday resumed the trial of the “Adhoc 5,” the name for a group of rights activists accused of bribing a hairdresser to lie about an alleged romantic relationship with jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha.
The full-day hearing proceeded without two key witnesses – the hairdresser Khum Chandaraty, also known as Srey Mom, and her lawyer, Try Chhoun.
Judge Duch Sok Sarin said the witnesses had been summonsed to appear, but that Chandaraty had changed her address while Chhoun had asked to be absent because of a health problem.
The defendants were outraged, accusing the two witnesses of acting with ill-intent and seeking to evade the hearing.
The Adhoc 5 legal team reiterated its claim that the two must be present for the trial to be legitimate.
The Adhoc 5 lawyers requested that the court drop the charges. Among their arguments, they said the accusation of bribery was unclear. “In what case was Srey Mom a witness for?” they asked.
Prosecutor Seng Hieng disagreed. He asked the council of judges to uphold the charges and to sentence the Adhoc 5 according to law. Judge Sok Sarin said a verdict would be delivered on Sept. 26.
The Adhoc 5 includes four officials from rights group Adhoc – Nay Vanda, Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan and Lim Mony – and Ny Chakrya, a former Adhoc and National Election Committee (NEC) official. All five attended the hearing on Tuesday.
The group was in pre-trial detention for more than 14 months after they were arrested in April 2016 by the Anti-Corruption Unit (ACU) and subsequently charged with bribing Chandaraty. They were released on bail in June last year.
The arguments on Tuesday focused on why Adhoc decided to help Chandaraty and why the rights group gave her $204.
Vanda was the first to testify. He asked to be allowed to remain silent because of poor health and asked the court to consider his testimony during the initial investigation.
He said the accusation against him was unjust because Chandaraty came and asked for help from Adhoc.
Soksan testified that Vanda and he went to take Chandaraty from a factory after she asked for help. He said he met Chandaraty three times, but he did not know clearly about the $204.
He said Adhoc’s policy was to support impoverished people who asked for help by giving them $7 for food and another $7 for lodging, plus unspecified travel costs.
All four Adhoc defendants said Chandaraty came to Adhoc’s office. They said she was “frightened” because she had been called by the Anti-Terrorism Department of the Ministry of Interior for the second time after a defamation complaint filed by Thy Sovantha, a well-known opposition critic.
“First Srey Mom’s mother came to us wearing a mask to ask for help. She seemed scared. Back then, Srey Mom was a suspect in a complaint filed by Thy Sovantha. She wasn’t a witness,” he said.
Sokha expressed doubt about the close relationship between Chandaraty and her lawyer.
“It was strange for me to see a lawyer and her client was so close to each other that they went to the province together. Try Chhoun was on a mission to Prey Veng province and she brought Srey Mom along,” Ny Sokha said.
Chakrya, the former NEC official, said he did not have any connection with Adhoc after he ended his job there in February 2016. But he said he once met Sokha who told him to take a message to Try Chhoun.
“He [Sokha] told me to tell Try Chhoun that there should not be too many press conferences,” Chakrya said. “I was charged with being an accomplice to bribing a witness. Who is the witness and in what case?”
Thieng Seng, an ACU official, testified that the case involved two groups – lawmakers with the court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, and members of Adhoc’s staff.
“The lawmakers’ group bribed Srey Mom not to tell the truth,” he said.
According to her answer during the investigation, Chandaraty said she really had a love affair with Sokha but claimed that Adhoc staff told her to say the opposite.
“I told Adhoc that the audio that was leaked was the truth. But Adhoc told me to stay firm and protect my reputation,” she said in a court document.
Try Chhoun also claimed that Adhoc staff had always consulted with Chandaraty before she spoke to the media or the court.
The five defendants denied the accusation. “Srey Mom’s answers, which said I instructed her on what to say, were not true, that’s why she cannot join the court hearing today,” Yi Sokkan said.