​Seven days of Cambodian Justice: A CFF Trial Diary | Phnom Penh Post

Seven days of Cambodian Justice: A CFF Trial Diary


Publication date
22 June 2001 | 07:00 ICT

Reporter : Phelim Kyne

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Cambodian-American CFF suspect Richard Kiri Kim argued that his actions were political, not terroristic.

Between June 11 and 20, suspected members of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF)

went on trial under a blanket of tight security at the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh.

The 32 suspects -an assortment of farmers, monks, low-ranking policemen and soldiers

- faced charges of terrorism, conspiracy and membership in an armed group for their

alleged participation in the Nov 24 street fighting in the capital that left eight

people dead and at least 14 people injured. An additional 29 CFF suspects await trial

at a future date.

Phelim Kyne provides a day-by-day commentary on the twists and turns of Cambodia's

first terrorism trial. Verdicts are due to be released on June 22.

The Case: The 32 accused faced charges under Article 36 of the criminal

code and Article 2 of the terrorism code. Two of the 32 suspects were tried in absentia,

including Long Beach California accountant and self-confessed CFF mastermind Chhun

Yasith. Convictions on all charges can result in possible life sentences.


A trial observer inspects the mounds of police evidence.

The Defendants: Everyone from sugar cane juice vendors and moto taxi drivers

to hardened life-long (now) ex-Khmer Rouge. An archetypal rabble ranging from an

elderly man from Kampot to a half-blind ex-soldier from Pailin and a single mother

from Poipet.


The Evidence: Mounds of allegedly confiscated evidence linking the accused

to the Nov 24 fighting were heaped at the front of the courtroom in front of the

judge. Along with neat piles of AK-47s and rockets were a pair of computers, some

ICOMS, a phone fax machine and several fanciful CFF ensigns - an eagle branded onto

a background of an American and Cambodian flag.

The Controversy: Even before the trial began, human rights monitors and

legal aid organizations had grave concerns about the government's treatment of the

accused and the apparent disregard of legal rights and denial of basic criminal defense


  1. Authorities restricted access of defense lawyers and human rights monitors to

    CFF suspects during their detention. As a result, at least 15 of the accused had

    never met their lawyer prior to the beginning of court proceedings on June 11 while

    an additional eight accused had seen their lawyer only once for an average of 20


  2. The vast majority of the accused had been detained past the six months that authorities

    are legally mandated to hold suspects without trial.

"Once again the Cambodian judicial system is in the spotlight, and once again

it has failed to give a fair hearing to those on trial," stated an unprecedented

June 20 joint press statement by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International criticizing

the trial's "flawed legal process." "No one questions the need to

bring suspected criminals to justice, but even the most basic safeguards for the

rights of defendants have been absent from these proceedings."

Day One, June11

Blocked After months of expectation, crowds of media, human rights monitors and

staff from the Cambodia Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human

Rights (COHCHR) braved a gauntlet of heavily armed soldiers and police backed by

attack dogs to the court venue at the Supreme Court building.

Although trial proceedings were under the authority of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court,

court representatives had announced previously that the venue would be shifted to

the Supreme Court both for reasons of security and to provide greater space for the

expected high numbers of observers.

However, guards stationed at the doors of the court denied access to media, family

members of the accused and even lawyers for the defense. Access could only be granted

to those in possession of a "permission letter" from the court.

The Post located the deputy clerk of the Municipal Court, who confirmed that indeed,

requisite "permission letters" had been sent to the Ministry of Information

the previous day. When pressed on what media had been specified entry, he admitted

that the "permission letter" in fact invited access only to representatives

of the Ministry of Information.

The Post was able to get listed on an impromptu admission slip thereby becoming the

only media permitted to enter the courtroom that morning.

Trial proceedings for the morning consisted of each accused being led in front of

the judge and prosecutor and asked if they were aware of the charges against them

and had engaged a lawyer. The majority stated that they either did not know the charges

against them or that charges were "unclear." Restricted access to the accused

in prison meant that the majority hadn't met their lawyer or were unsure who he or

she was.

While Trial Judge Sithamony cautioned those in attendance that mobile phones had

to be turned off during trial proceedings, that rule was ignored by all including

the judge and prosecutor, who were both observed to engage in phone conversations

on each day of the proceedings during cross-examinations of the accused.

Meanwhile, attempts by media outside to listen in on the courtroom activities were

continually frustrated by police on duty inside the court, who chased off a trial

observer who attempted to do some strategic leaking near an open window.

Richard Kiri Kim interrupted the droning monologue of the proceedings by demanding

that the judge be replaced in his case and that he be immediately released in accordance

with laws forbidding incarceration for longer than six months without trial. He also

expressed concern about the closed nature of the court proceedings and demanded that

the court be open to media, accused family members, NGOs and UN representatives.

Judge Sok Sithamony agreed to rule on Kiri Kim's requests in the afternoon session.

June 11, PM: Legal boycott

At the beginning of the afternoon session, the tightly restricted access to the courtroom

began to ease, with stray members of NGOs and the media allowed entry.

At the beginning of the court proceedings, however, nine defense lawyers of the Cambodian

Defenders Project (CDP), Cambodian Bar Association (CBA) and Legal Aid Cambodia (LAC)walked

out of court in protest of the non-public nature of the trial.

Unfazed, Judge Sithamony announced that those defendants whose lawyers had walked

out would be split between two of three remaining private lawyers - Puth Theavy,

whose usual beat is the Military Court, and Dy Borima.

Richard Kiri Kim was then brought back to the courtroom and informed that his requests

of the morning had been uniformly rejected and that his objections should have been

brought to the attention of the Investigating Judge prior to trial.

Neither Judge Sithamony nor Prosecutor Nget Sarath responded when Kiri Kim complained

that he had never in more than six months of confinement met the investigating judge.

Instead, they proceeded to question Kiri Kim about the events of Nov 24.

After protesting alleged memory defects due to the poor quality of prison food, Kiri

Kim wowed the crowd with a lengthy and exhaustively detailed description of the CFF

strategy to bring down the government.

Kiri Kim's confession was a conspiracy theorist's dream, complete with descriptions

of a 40,000-60,000-strong CFF force spanning civilian, government and military ranks

and assigned to capture or destroy more than 291 government facilities allegedly

targeted in the Nov 24 fighting.

Kiri Kim was interrupted only by the judge ordering that a pair of photographers

who had taken photographs within the courtroom have their film confiscated and be

ejected. Meanwhile, a trio of soldiers packing video cameras as well as assorted

uniformed photographers were given free reign to film the court proceedings throughout

the duration of the trial.

Day two: Bread not bombs

The second day of the trial began with a complete lifting on the access restrictions

to the courtroom.

Court proceedings were marked by assertions from the accused that would become depressingly

familiar throughout the trial - ignorance of the CFF and its true aims as well as

protestations that their involvement with Kiri Kim and Chhun Yasith was premised

on relationship with a registered development NGO and/or the hope of financial rewards

reportedly promised to prospective "recruits."

In addition, most defendants rejected their court-appointed lawyers and requested

"independent" legal counsel.

More unfortunate was the account of moto taxi driver Chao Sokha, looking worringly

stunted, sick and undernourished, who insisted that his only involvement with the

alleged CFF members was to have been hired to bring them bread on the evening prior

to the Nov 24 fighting. Sokha claimed to have been beaten while in police custody.

Police identification of Sokha as being listed on CFF documents as a "three

star general" in the movement prompted laughter from observers in light of Sokha's

sickly, diminutive stature.

Other defendants, such as Ly Chhun Hourng, likewise insisted that the confessions

given to police were given under threat of violence.

Proceedings were momentarily disrupted at 2:15pm as police outside the court frantically

sought to retrieve one of their attack dogs that had inexplicably chased down a group

of children walking on Street 63 past the Supreme Court.

Day 3: Threats of violence

The trial resumed with the surprise return of five CDP lawyers, who immediately requested

that the trial be restarted from the beginning due to their absence. The judge rejected

the request.

The day's testimony was neatly uniform in defendants' assertions that they had been

duped into CFF involvement through a promise of cash for lists of "recruits"

to the movement or a complete denial of confessions given to police admitting participation

in the Nov 24 events.

Others said they thought they were joining a development organization or were being

recruited for legal employment.

"In this organization [CFF] you needed a number of people under you in order

to get funds, so I wrote down people's names just to get money," said defendant

Ma Suben, who needed the funds "...to buy the position of policeman" in

his district.

Elderly Chan Yean tearfully admitted to having registered his two teenage sons in

the CFF without their knowledge in order to bolster his recruitment figures.

"We know exactly where your sons live," Judge Sithamony said in an apparent

effort to get Yean to confess. "You know clearly that the CFF is an armed group

and planned to attack beforehand."

Defendants Noun Naim and Sok Seang Li both denied their confession, with Seang Li

insisting that he implicated himself for fear of torture by police.

Mid-morning it is revealed that part of the motivation for the return of the CDP

lawyers was a series of threatening phone calls to three lawyers hinting at violence

against them and their families if they did not return to court.

Two of the CDP lawyers and CDP Acting Director Soun Visol confirmed the threats had

been made and that the return of the lawyers to court violated a decision by the

organization made the previous evening to continue their trial boycott.

In the afternoon defendant Chey Vandy became the first of several defendants and

their lawyers to question the source and validity of physical evidence used as the

basis for his arrest. Earlier Kiri Kim completely rejected all evidence reportedly

taken from his computer, saying that he had no way to verify whether the files had

been altered or tampered with.

Vandy challenged a photograph of himself obtained from police from an undisclosed

source that allegedly linked him to CFF activities.

"That photograph could have been taken anywhere... I reject absolutely that

photo [as evidence]."

Defendant An Mao packed the courtroom later that afternoon with a defiant and unapologetic

account of his involvement in the shooting that occurred around the Phnom Penh railway

station and his assessment that with funding and time the alleged coup could have


Day 4: For a few dollars more

The fourth day of trial proceedings was notable for the increasing speed of interrogation

of the accused.

While Richard Kiri Kim got more than half a day of court time, the time given to

cross-examination of suspects on day four ranged from a high of 90 minutes to a low

of 18 minutes.

Defendants such as Veang Chean continued to insist that their involvement with Chhun

Yasith and Richard Kiri Kim was predicated upon a desire to make money from the perceived

wealthy Cambodian Americans.

"I told [Yasith and Kiri Kim] that I had 100 troops, but I had none," Chean

said of his alleged CFF activities. "I had no name list and had documented no


Day 5: Can you read this?

The final day of the cross-examination, defendants were brought in front of the judge

and prosecutor at a steadily accelerating rate.

An embarrassing glitch in proceedings surfaced when Judge Sithamony announced that

the police confession of defendant Thau Dara was illegible. A police official called

forward to attempt to decipher the document was likewise unable to do so and Sithamony

ordered that a legible copy be prepared.

While defendants such as Bun Chan To and Bun Moni explained how promises of money

and well-paid employment led them into contact with Chhun Yasith and Richard Kiri

Kim, defense lawyer Puth Theavy instructed his bodyguard to photograph him in various

locations at the front of the courtroom.

The Judge recessed the court in the late afternoon and announced that victim testimony

and the conclusions of the prosecutor and the defense lawyers would be heard on June


Days 6 and 7: Wrap-up

On the morning of June 19, Prosecutor Nget Sarath read through the charges and evidence

against the accused in short order, leaving the rest of the day to defense lawyers

to present their concluding arguments for their clients. Private lawyer Puth Theavy

presented the last of the defense counsel concluding statements the next morning.

The defense lawyers were united in their assessments of perceived deficiencies in

legal procedure and/or lack of evidence against their clients. One lawyer led the

court through a painstaking definition of what, according to Cambodian law, actually

constituted evidence and how such evidence was absent in the case of his clients.

Defense lawyers concluded that their clients should be released on grounds including:

  1. The absence of arrest warrants by arresting police.
  2. The fact that none of their defendants had been arrested flagrant delicto (in

    the act of a crime).

  3. The use of alleged CFF membership lists of dubious veracity as the basis for

    their clients' arrests.

  4. Allegedly forced confessions.

Prosecutor Nget Sarath requested that the judge suspend judgment on the two absentia

suspects, including Chhun Yasith, pending their arrest.

Judge Sithamony announced that verdicts would be handed down on the morning of June


Fly-on-the-wall court quotes . . .

"These are not the conditions of a public trial. The meaning of a public trial

is that anyone, including the press, can observe...the judge must assure the court

that the trial will be public." A defense lawyer prior to the walkout and boycott

of trial proceedings by lawyers from Cambodia Defenders Project, Cambodian Bar Association

and Legal Aid Cambodia, 11/6/01

"We cannot have a trial without [defense] lawyers," Trial Judge Sok Sithamony

referring to the walkout of defense lawyers on 11/6/01.

"In order to avoid wasting time, we should continue the trial without [defense]

lawyers." Prosecutor Nget Sarath referring to the walkout of defense lawyers

on 11/6/01

"I want to suggest to the authorities that the lawyers who have walked out should

not be allowed to see the accused again. Those lawyers should not be allowed to come

back here." Puth Theavy, private defense lawyer. 11/6/01

"I see injustice in Cambodia. For example, the [1998] election was unjust and

the court system is unjust. Even the UN sees injustice from top to bottom. These

things made me want to join the CFF, which has ideals." Cambodian-American defendant

Richard Kiri Kim, CFF Secretary-General, on his motivations for wanting to join the

CFF. 11/6/01

"I would like to say that because I have been detained, I have lost my memory."

Cambodian-American defendant Richard Kiri Kim, 11/6/01 in response to prosecutor

questions about details of his movements on Nov 24, 2000. 11/6/01

"It's the government's fault for not being strict on weapons possession."

Richard Kiri Kim regarding the ease with which weapons allegedly used in the Nov

24 fighting were acquired in Cambodia. 11/6/01

"My mission was to carry bread, not guns." Chao Sokha, defendant . 11/6/01

"They beat me when they forced me to confess." Chao Sokha, defendant. 11/6/01

"Answer the question. Don't talk about your treatment anywhere other than when

the Investigating Judge was questioning you." Trial Judge Sok Sithamony in response

to the above torture allegation by defendant Chao Sokha. 11/6/01

"I'm happy that my client confessed a lot of things today. In fact, until now

there's only been one person - my client - who's confessed everything and is telling

the truth to the court." Private Lawyer Dy Borima in reference to the testimony

of defendant Ly Chhun Hourng, in spite of the fact that Hourng had just rejected

the Investigating Judge's report, the police report and his own confession, saying

he'd been pressured to write what the police wanted him to say at the Police Commissariat

in Kompong Cham. 12/6/01.

"I was angry [on Nov 24] because Richard Kiri Kim stopped helping me. I told

him he was lucky, that if he was here I'd kill him." An Mao, defendant. 13/6/01

"I appreciate the confession of An Mao. He did well. He took responsibility.

He said if Richard Kiri Kim did not escape, he would like permission of the authorities

to kill him to show responsibility." Defendant An Mao's arresting officer. 13/6/01

"I can't say what I'll do if the court pardons me. Chhun Yasith and Richard

Kiri Kim disappointed me greatly, so I would probably stop [fighting] and go back

to my farm. But if Chhun Yasith and Richard Kiri Kim remember me and they have money,

I will probably fight again." An Mao, defendant. 13/6/01

"I have a headache now." Puth Theavy, defense lawyer on the request of

five Cambodian Defenders Project (CDP) lawyers on the morning of 13/6/01 that the

trial be re-started from the beginning to compensate for time lost during their June

11-12 boycott of trial proceedings. 13/6/01

"You are playing the role of prosecutor. You always look for evidence against

the accused." A defense lawyer to Trial Judge Sok Sithamony. 13/6/01

"I just confessed to avoid torture. I didn't feel safe. There were no police

[during my confession] but I was very afraid about what would happen when I returned

[to police custody]." Chhun Ly, defendant. 13/6/01

"At first I was happy with my [CFF] medal because I thought it was gold. But

then I went to the goldsmith who cut a piece off and tested it and found it was not

gold. I thought that Chhun Yasith had tricked me." Tonlab Mel, defendant. 14/6/01

"How can I get excited about [alleged CFF membership]? They just used my name

to send me to prison." Seang Narin, defendant 15/6/01

"I agree my confession is 30% true, but I can't confirm the other 70%."

Koh Saruth, defendant 15/6/01

"If you want to lie, lie logically so that people can believe you." Prosecutor

Nget Sarath regarding the allegedly conflicting testimony of defendant Horm Bunthoeun.


"I'd like the judge and prosecutor to uphold the law and rethink [their opinions

on the accused]. The prosecutor has no pressure from the government so I want him

to rethink. No one can force you. I can't accept the rumors that the prosecutor has

gotten pressure from the government [regarding his trial conduct]." Moung Arun,

defense lawyer (CBA) in his concluding statement for his client, Tomlab Mel. 19/6/01.

"My client would not have been arrested if he'd known he was to be arrested.

It's because he doesn't know how to think well." Private defense lawyer Puth

Theavy in his concluding defense statement for client Sok Sameth. 20/6/01.

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