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Prince Ranariddh's trial: Act 1

Prince Ranariddh's trial: Act 1

March 4, 8:32 am. Investigating judge Nou Chantha stepped on stage, looked through

his notes for ten minutes and began explaining the rules of his military court.

"No smoking in court. No children in court unless they are testifying. No weapons

in the courtroom unless they are evidence." Chanta's message: Order was the

rule of the day.

Tickets to the trial had to be obtained in advance and security was tight.

Cameras, bags, even purses were examined. Several women reported watching military

police blush after reaching into their toiletry bags. Once guard even opened a thermos,

just in case.

The stage was carefully set.

The three judges' desks had microphones for the 300-strong crowd and countless more

watching on television.

Cambodia's flag was pinned to the back wall next to small portraits of the King -

the accused's father - and the Queen.

The judges were dressed impeccably, two wearing purple gowns with starched-white

tunics, and Prosecutor Sao Sok in a dashing white military uniform with gold braiding

draped across one shoulder.

8:35 am. Presiding judge Ney Thol and Sao Sok stepped onto the stage, Thol's square

black-rimmed glasses reflecting camera flashes like small explosions. Four minutes

later the trial opened.

9:01 am. Nine witnesses had been introduced and sent outside, before being called

back, one by one, to testify.

9:21 am. Sao Sok, in a monotone, began offering his version of events that have been

rehashed in the media dozens of times since charges were brought against the Prince

and his followers in August.

Backstage, military men peeked through the curtain.

The prosecutor continued with his account, explaining at the end that the evidence

proved that the three men had imported illegally-purchased weapons on May 26, 1997.

"These men are unable to deny what they have done."

Observers said that the prosecutor was right in that Ranariddh and Bun Chhay would

have faced certain imprisonment at the very least if they had returned for the trial.

Both the Prince and Bun Chhay have explained many times that they would have no chance

of changing the mind of a military court which already knew the will of Commander-in-Chief

Hun Sen.

11 am. As the last of the nine witnesses spoke, much of the press corps had moved

on to other breaking stories: the murder of Funcinpec Brigadier General Kim Sang;

the renaming of the Khmer Nation Party as the Sam Rainsy Party.

11:15 am. Ney Thol called for a recess to polish up the verdict. Such decisions are

usually finalized in 5 to 15 minutes, but he announced that this one would last until

2:30 pm. While legal observers might have taken the 3 hour 15 minute deliberation

as a positive sign of contemplation, most just called it "lunch".

One motodop driver outside the proceedings said: "[Ranariddh] is innocent, but

he will be guilty [in court]. What choice does the court have?" he asked.

2:30 pm: "No smoking in the court. No children are allowed in the court unless

they are testifying...". The message: Order was still the rule of the day.

The evidence still sat in front of the stage: ten small weapons chests on to which

had been tacked plastic name tags saying "Norodom Ranariddh First Prime Minister

of the Kingdom of Cambodia."

Witness Chhin Chanpor, the commander of the military police in Sihanoukville, had

already told the court that the weapons were real, not imitations, and said the labels

were substantial proof of the Prince's involvement in crime.

Witness Un Sovanthy, deputy director of economic police in Sihanoukville, agreed:

"On each case there is a label addressed to [Prince Norodom] Ranariddh, the

addressee."

Other witnesses said they had seen weapons containers and the labels with the Prince's

name on them.

Those seeking a stronger link between the defendants and their guilt were unconvinced

by witness Touch Vanna, the deputy chief of military police in Sihanoukville, who

assured that "the evidence today is true".

By now even the Gendarmes in the front row were looking fidgety and bored.

2:59 pm: All were told to rise as Ney Thol prepared to give his summary. He had just

offered his version of events, in which he announced - for the first time during

the trial - that most of the 78 crates of weaponry seized in March had been distributed

to forces and used during the July fighting.

He also claimed for the first time in court that day that Nhek Bun Chhay "tricked"

the co-Ministers of Defense into letting him hold the weapons on the promise that

he would not use them.

Bun Chhay's was the first verdict: guilty, four years in prison.

Widely predicted, all three were found guilty and given sentences few expect to be

served: five years for Ranariddh, and two years, suspended, for Thach Suong.

When Ney Thol left the stage, it was one minute after 3pm.

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