The Supreme Court on March 23 heard the appeal of two Chinese nationals and three Cambodians who were each handed life sentences in 2016 in relations to a drug case involving nearly 55kg of heroin and methamphetamine.

Presiding Judge Soeng Panhavuth, who transferred his authority to another judge, read out the Phnom Penh Municipal Court verdict in the presence of four of the five accused. In September 2016, the municipal court found them guilty and sentenced each of them to life imprisonment. In addition, they were each fined 60 million riel ($15,000).

Unsatisfied with the verdict, the five filed their grievance to the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal – which upheld the lower court’s decision in September 2021.

Court records showed that on June 16, 2015, police from the Ministry of Interior’s Anti-Drug Department raided a rented apartment in Russey Keo commune of Phnom Penh’s Russey Keo district and a condominium in Chamkarmon district’s Tuol Tom Poung I commune. They arrested four people during the raids. One more person was arrested in Stung Treng province in connection with the raids.

The records identified the two Chinese men as Ly Yon, 42, and Toeng Yanping, 54. The three Cambodians are Li Xuer, 43, Phal Rany, 28, and 55-year-old Dam Nha, who was arrested in Stung Treng.

At the courtroom on March 23, Xuer and Yanping’s defence lawyer Lor Kimgech argued that on the day of the raid, police had searched Unit 9 while his clients rented Unit 3 and that the officers had not seen any drugs in the unit. Yanping was immediately remanded into custody, he said.

“The police claimed that while in prison, my client Yanping was recorded carrying out drug deals on the phone. The police could not provide audio evidence of these ‘recorded’ calls at the trial. Therefore, I believe these convictions were unjust, and I request that the trial be returned to the Court of Appeal, who may order a retrial,” he said.

Lawyer Sin Sovan, acting for Yon and Nha, said the municipal court heard the case of Nha in absentia. Another client, Yon, had returned from China just four days before he was arrested.

“Please transfer the case for a re-trial,” Sovan urged.

Supreme Court Prosecutor Pen Sarath said at the hearing that after studying the case and examining the facts, he believed the lower court had convicted the five people according to the law. Therefore, he agreed with the verdict of the Phnom Penh Court of Appeal.

A verdict is due to be delivered on March 30.