THE first two defendants to stand trial for crimes connected to the anti-Thai riots were released after a brief trial at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on June 19.
Judge Hing Thirith found both the defendants, In Bun Thoeun and Om Sokh Kheng, innocent. The men were accused of stealing three cases of intravenous bottles from the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel resort on January 30. The hotel was burned to the ground during the January 29 riots.
The lawyer for the defendants, who were not present at the trial, read a statement asserting that the pair were given the objects from the looted hotel. The lawyer added that his clients had agreed to return the items.
However, four months after the riots, at least 58 of those arrested have not been tried. Court observers said 39 suspects were out on bail, while another 19 were in jail awaiting trial. The law stipulates that the suspects must be tried within six months or released.
Human rights groups have questioned the treatment of those arrested after the January 29 riots.
"Our concern is whether or not the courts have evidence on these people," said Naly Pilorge, director of human rights group Licadho, which monitored the trial. "We're pleased the court made this decision considering the lack of evidence, but we hope the courts ensure that the others are promptly tried."
Most suspects have been charged with crimes such as robbery, destruction of public property, or demonstrating illegally. Municipal Judge Tan Senarong told the Post that those infractions normally carried relatively light jail sentences of less than one year.
However, he added, four incarcerated suspects were accused of inciting violence, which could carry jail sentences ranging from five years to life, depending on the severity of the charges.
There were two high-profile arrests for charges of incitement: Mam Sonando, the founder of the independent radio station, Beehive Radio, and the editor of Rasmei Angkor newspaper, En Chan Sivatha. Their detention by authorities sparked protests that eventually led to their release, although the charges are still pending.
However, the two student activists charged with incitement, Ken Sara, a member of the Democratic Front of Khmer Students and Intellectuals (DFKSI), and Thorn Vessna, are still in jail. Members of student groups said they had been denied access to the two activists.
Mau Meoung Yat, the president of DFKSI, said the government's accusations against Ken were preposterous, and he felt it was unlikely the court would provide a just trial.
"I don't think there will be a fair trial for him, because the government will put the blame on him," he said. "Prime Minister Hun Sen wants to push the blame on to opposition students."
Mau Meoung Yat said the police had blocked all attempts to contact Sara.
The government is under pressure to find those responsible for the riots. It made unconditional commitments to try those responsible for the events of January 29 when it sent out officially accepted Thai demands to bring "justice to the perpetrators and those responsible for the heinous acts".
The controversy has also attracted the attention of King Norodom Sihanouk. He released a letter earlier this year with a rare plea to the government requesting the release of all those imprisoned following the riots. The open letter stated that the detainees were innocent and incapable of planning the night's destruction.