Photo by: Pha Lina
Rafiqul Islam carries his daughter while his son follows closely behind after a hearing at Phnom Penh
Municipal court on January 11.
Within the decaying walls of Prey Sar prison, a former Bangladeshi restaurateur has become a shell of his former self.
He stands out among the prisoners in the crowded courtyard; his hair has greyed, his health deteriorated and he breaks down in tears while describing the emotional details of his case.
He is Rafiqul Islam, a 42-year-old Bangladeshi national who has lived in Phnom Penh for 12 years.
He is one of three men facing terrorism charges and awaiting sentencing on Thursday for their alleged role in a proposed attack on the American, Australian and British embassies in April of last year.
“I am very sick and it is very hard to survive in this place. I did not write this letter because I have had a business here for eight years. I lost my business, my family and I lost my life; for what?” he said.
“The letter did not have my full name and it did not have my passport number.”
Islam stands accused alongside Miah Muhammed Huymayan Kabir, a 62-year-old Bangladeshi citizen, and DP Paudel, a 44-year-old from Nepal, who were charged last June under the Kingdom’s anti-terrorism law after a letter was sent on April 21, 2010, to the three embassies warning of an impending attack.
The letter was allegedly written by the three men in cooperation with three others who have not been arrested.
Although Islam and the other two suspects were not identified as terrorists in the letter, they were apprehended on suspicion of writing the letter and having terrorist connections.
Shown in court, the letter identified four other people accused of planning the attacks, in addition to listing accusations that they were members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and had been in direct contact with infamous terrorist leader Osama bin Laden.
The four alleged terrorists identified in the letter include two members of the Royhinga minority group of Myanmar; Dil Mohammad, a man identified only as Yousuf, Nepalese Hari Prasad Guatom and Indian Jes Bir Singh, all four of whom were held and later released by police.
They were described in the letter as active members of the al-Qaeda terrorist organisation who trained in Saudi Arabia, Thailand, and Malaysia and had been receiving large amounts of money each month from terrorist leaders in Southeast Asia and from bin Laden.
The letter apparently represents the strongest evidence disclosed in court.
However Muong Sokun, a defence lawyer representing Islam, raised doubts before judges in the trial on January 11.
“If you really wrote a letter threatening the three embassies, would you dare to include your name and signature so that police could arrest you?”
Islam was identified only as “Kalam” in the letter, a nickname that he acquired from customers and employees at his restaurant, and he was incarcerated based on handwriting analysis in which police described “similarities” between his handwriting and the writing on the letter.
“How can they be confident in the handwriting? This is the only evidence they say that they have, and police just say that there are similarities [in the handwriting],” said a family member of Islam, who asked not to be named.
According to documents shown in court, of the six alleged authors of the letter, only three have been imprisoned pending trial, while the three others were not detained.
Of the four alleged terrorists identified in the letter only Dil Mohammad, whose name and refugee number were written on the letter, was able to be reached for comment.
“Last May, the immigration office ... showed me this paper accusing me of being al-Qaeda and said that it was Kalam [Islam] who wrote this letter,” Dil Mohammad said on Sunday.
“I was put in detention for 14 days in the immigration office. Four days after being contacted, they searched my house and could not find anything. I have never met this man Rafiqul Islam before.”
Islam asserts that he has no knowledge of this man and would not have access to the information that identified him in the letter.
“[The accused terrorists in the letter] are poor people from Myanmar. How would I get the names from these people and how would I know [Dil Mohammad’s refugee card] number?” he said.
Chum Bi, 37, Islam’s wife, has adamantly denied her husband’s alleged terrorist activities, saying that he has been living in Cambodia without incident since 1998 and has two young children
“My husband is not capable of threatening to blow up embassies in Phnom Penh.”
Islam’s family member believed the letter was in fact related to a dispute with a fellow restaurateur.
During their trial on January 11, Kabir also claimed in court that he had not signed the letter, though he admitted to being involved in a dispute with Islam.
“I didn’t write the letter and the letter doesn’t belong to me, but I acknowledge having a verbal dispute with [Islam] ... over borrowing money,” he said.
Chum Bi also added that after her husband’s arrest she received numerous phone calls from unidentified police officers attempting to extort money to secure Islam’s release.
“After my husband was arrested and before he was charged, I received at least 10 calls per day from the police asking me to pay them $3,000 in exchange for the release of my husband, but I said that I did not have the money and I trust in my husband’s innocence,” she said.
Kirt Chantharith, spokesman for the National Police, declined to comment on the case, saying it was under the jurisdiction of the court.
Chum Bi added that there had been intervention letters sent from Bangladeshi government officials, saying that Islam had never had any legal problems in Bangladesh before moving to Phnom Penh 12 years ago.
Shahedul Haque, a minister in the Embassy of Bangladesh in Bangkok, said on Friday that Bangladeshi officials are closely monitoring the case and “believe proper justice will be made based on the correct facts”.
Spokespeople from the American, Australian and British embassies all declined to comment on the case.
In the event of a conviction, Chum Bi said she would continue to plead her husband’s innocence and take her case to the highest levels of government.
“If he is convicted and sent to prison, I will continue to appeal and I will also write a letter to Samdech Hun Sen, the prime minister of the Kingdom of Cambodia, and the King for their intervention.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PHAK SEANGLY