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
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
- 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
- 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
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 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
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:
- The absence of arrest warrants by arresting police.
- The fact that none of their defendants had been arrested flagrant delicto (in
the act of a crime).
- The use of alleged CFF membership lists of dubious veracity as the basis for
their clients' arrests.
- 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
"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  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
"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.