Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Thai man convicted of spying

Thai man convicted of spying

Thai man convicted of spying

Arrested Thai national Sivarak Chutipong (left) leaves Phnom Penh Municipal Court after being convicted of espionage. His mother (right) cries in front of the court on Tuesday.

ATHAI engineer was sentenced to seven years in jail and fined 10 million riels (US$2,402) by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday for passing information about the flight schedule of Thaksin Shinawatra during the fugitive former Thai prime minister’s controversial visit to the Kingdom last month.

“Obtaining the flight schedule was very important for the Thai government, but it severely endangered Mr Thaksin,” Judge Ke Sakhan said, reading the verdict against 31-year-old Sivarak Chutipong. “It also affected the national security of Cambodia.”

Sivarak’s mother, who attended the hearing, burst into sobs upon hearing the sentence.

An employee of the Thai-owned Cambodia Air Traffic Services (CATS) for the past seven years, Sivarak was arrested on November 12 and charged with breaching national security in connection with the incident. Cambodia seized temporary control of CATS after the arrest.

During the hearing, Sivarak told the court that Kamrob Palawatwichai, the first secretary of the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh, called him on the morning of November 10, about 20 minutes after a private jet landed at the military base adjacent to Phnom Penh International Airport. That jet was Thaksin’s, though Sivarak said he was not aware of this when he communicated with the first secretary.

“Kamrob called me once, and I called him back twice, shortly after the arrival of Thaksin,” Sivarak said. “He asked me to give him a copy of the flight schedule, but I did not do that.”

Kamrob was declared persona non grata and expelled from Cambodia for his alleged involvement in the incident, a move that prompted Thailand to expel the first secretary of the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok. The two countries had already withdrawn their respective ambassadors in the row over Thaksin’s appointment as economics adviser to the Cambodian government and personal adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Phnom Penh court deputy prosecutor Sok Roeun said Thaksin’s flight schedule was sensitive information in light of the fact that Thaksin, who went into exile in 2006 to avoid a prison term for corruption, is now a high-ranking Cambodian government adviser.

“His flight schedule is not a simple document like a wedding invitation,” Sok Roeun said.

Khieu Sambo, Sivarak’s defence lawyer, said Thaksin’s flight schedule could not be considered secret, given that all staff at CATS, which employs nine Thai nationals, were aware of the information. The plane’s arrival was also shown on local television that morning.

Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs deputy spokesman Thani Thongphakdi said his government would wait to see whether Sivarak lodges an appeal or requests a Royal pardon.

“We will, of course, respect the decision that he would make, and if he chooses to seek a Royal pardon, the government stands ready to seek such a pardon on his behalf,” Thani said.

Khieu Sambo said he and Sivarak would discuss an appeal, which must be filed within one month.

“As a defence lawyer, I will use all my ability to help my client, but appealing or not depends on him” Khieu Sambo said, adding: “I have not yet made plans to request amnesty from the King for my client.”

Observers said a Royal pardon was a likely scenario in this intensely politicised case.

Cambodian Centre for Human Rights president Ou Virak said there were likely “politics being played behind the scenes” for Sivarak’s release. He called the case a “major embarrassment” for the government of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and said it presented the opportunity for Hun Sen to either seek rapprochement with Abhisit or lend further support to Thaksin and the opposition Puea Thai party.

“The question is, what message does the Cambodian side want to send, and which side are they going to pick?” Ou Virak said.

Thaksin and Puea Thai chairman Chavalit Yongchaiyudh have said they are prepared to assist in the case, though they risk a nationalist backlash in Thailand if they are seen as having conspired with Hun Sen, said Puangthong Rungswasdisab, a scholar of Thai-Cambodian relations at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University.

“Thaksin and Chavalit will try to say that the Abhisit government is sort of incompetent in relations with Cambodia, but whether Thaksin and Chavalit would be able to capitalise on the release of Khun Sivarak is another matter,” she said.