Two Thai nationals facing espionage charges in connection with their arrest for trespassing in Banteay Meanchey province last month appeared for questioning at Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday, as tensions mounted in the high-profile case.
The two were part of a group of seven people, including Thai parliamentarian Panich Vikitsreth, who were apprehended by Cambodian troops in Banteay Meanchey’s O’Chrou district.
All seven have been charged with illegal entry and unlawfully entering a military base, charges that carry a maximum combined sentence of 18 months in prison.
On Tuesday, detainees Veera Somkwamkid and Ratree Taiputana Taiboon were also formally charged with collecting information that may damage national defence, a charge that could net them up to ten years in prison.
“The investigating judge, Ms. Chang Sinath, upheld the charge against my client,” said Pich Vicheka, Veera’s Cambodian lawyer.
“My client, however, remained silent under interrogation.”
While the Kingdom’s courts provide their own interpreters, Veera refused to speak without an interpreter appointed by the Thai Embassy, the Bangkok Post reported.
Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs deputy spokesman Thani Thongphakdi said on Tuesday that Bangkok was “concerned about the new charges”.
“We have always believed that the seven people did not intend to encroach into Cambodia … but we hope that they will have a chance to defend themselves in a court of law,” he said.
“We certainly respect the judicial process in Cambodia, and we hope the issue will be resolved as soon as possible, paving the way for the suspects to return to Thailand as soon as possible.”
Veera, a former leader of the “Yellow Shirt” People’s Alliance for Democracy, now heads the Thailand Patriot Network, a PAD splinter group. Ratree is reportedly his secretary.
Veera and the nationalist Yellow Shirts have staged repeated rallies at the Thai-Cambodian border to protest against alleged Cambodian encroachment.
He joined Panich on last month’s ill-fated excursion in an attempt to “investigate” the border demarcation process.
Pich Vicheka said on Tuesday that the detainees had yet to receive a response to a bail request submitted on Monday. A trial date has not yet been set.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Hun Sen said the detainees could not expect to win early release if they are convicted.
“After they are convicted, they have 30 days to make an appeal, and after the conviction is effective, they have to serve two thirds of their sentences before we consider whether there is a pardon or not,” the prime minister said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JAMES O’TOOLE