Seang Sarin swears he only fell asleep for a moment. It’s a moment he has cursed and played over in his head for nearly 20 months now.
Speaking to the Post in a detention room at the Kandal Provincial Court this week, the former guard at Oudong Mountain described waking to the sound of dogs barking, then running to check the stupa that housed a golden urn said to contain remains of the Buddha, one the Kingdom’s most valuable religious relics.
It was about 1am on December 10, 2013, when Sarin, who had guarded the historical treasures kept on Phnom Preah Reach Troap – the Mountain of the Royal Treasury – for seven years, says he nodded off momentarily.
Waking his colleagues, they inspected the stupa, where only two hours earlier, 24-year-old Keo Reaksmey, according to Reaksmey’s own confession, had broken in to steal the urn and other relics.
The door was locked, Sarin, 58, recalled.
“I wondered how he could have stolen it since the door was locked. I had worked there for seven years and never experienced such a case,” he said.
On Monday’s court visit, Sarin and five of his co-accused appeared only to have their trial delayed for a third time.
More than a year has passed since police arrested Reaksmey after finding the relics at his home in Takeo province’s Trang district.
Residents had reported the known eccentric, who professed to be the brother of the sun, bought an expensive motorbike and car, paid for a wooden house for his grandmother and began handing out wads of cash to children while dressed in white robes.
Despite Reaksmey confessing that he carried out the heist alone, Sarin and fellow guards Pha Sokhem, 60, Chom Phay, 58, and Ka Sat, 46, along with local villager Kan Sopheak, 39, have now been locked up for 19 months.
Cleared by the Kandal Provincial Court in October, the quintet never saw the outside of the prison before the charges of theft were reinstated by the Appeal Court in December, after an appeal by prosecutor Ouk Kimsith against the decision.
Evidence connecting the group to Reaksmey or the urn’s theft has never been publicised, however, other statues were found at the home of Sokhem and, following the heist, officials claimed the men had previously looted from the site.
A later hearing heard that their fingerprints were found inside the stupa, and the group has since effectively been treated as a single entity with Reaksmey.
The five men’s pre-trial detention has stretched beyond the 18-month limit allowed by Cambodian law, a status Men Makara, provincial coordinator for rights group Adhoc, described simply as illegal, if common.
Speaking yesterday, Kandal chief prosecutor Lim Sokuntha, who has taken over from Kimsith at Kandal, said he would carefully consider the case again next week.
Sokhem, who is currently receiving treatment for an undisclosed illness at Phnom Penh’s Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital, declined to speak on Monday, only saying that he is innocent and should be released.
Sarin appealed for justice.
“Please seek justice for us,” he said. “If we were charged, we should be charged with being careless, not committing a crime.”
His daughter also appealed to the court for their release, pleading her father’s poor health. “The thief is already arrested and has confessed, so please release my father,” she said.
According to the International Centre for Prison Studies, in September 2014, pre-trial detainees constituted 63.6 per cent of the Cambodian prison population, making it the 22nd highest in the world, and the highest in Southeast Asia.
Despite recent initiatives to curb the practice, Marc Borg, prison project consultant with rights group Licadho, said pre-trial detention was still “the rule rather than the exception”.
“Pretrial detainees often endure awful physical and mental hardships while awaiting trial inside prison and the resulting loss of vital wages can be absolutely devastating, especially for poor families,” Borg said.
On Monday, the confessed thief Reaksmey, dressed in blue prison garb, smiled, saying he harboured no resentment about his time in prison, where he has learned to read.
However, he asked for leniency, saying he needed to care for his grandmother, a beggar who has since returned to the streets to support him in jail.
“I realise my wrongdoing, and I did it because I wanted the gold, but I did not know it was the Buddha’s remains, I just knew that it belonged to the King Father,” Reaksmey said.
Gold seller Siek Sareth, 39, arrested along with Reaksmey has had her day in court, sentenced to two and a half years in prison for handling stolen property on December 11.
But for Seang Sarin and his fellow guards, the wait continues.