"VERY unjust!" shouted Srun Vong Vannak when his sentence was read and
handcuffs were clapped on his wrists.
"Thirteen years is not so long... When I'm released, I'll fight until the end
of my life for justice and against corruption for the Cambodian people!" he
called out while he was being driven away from his Sept 9 trial, standing in the
back of a police pickup truck as an officer tried to cover his mouth.
Vannak, security chief of the Khmer Nation Party, was convicted of conspiracy to
murder Hun Sen's brother-in-law in the closely- watched trial.
After hearing the evidence, Judge Nop Sophon withdrew to his chambers for 10 minutes,
returning with what witnesses said was a lengthy written verdict - guilty, 13 years
Many observers, who had predicted beforehand that the court case would be politicized,
labeled the verdict a travesty.
"It's a shame for Cambodian justice," said Christophe Peschoux, Assistant
to the Director of the UN Center for Human Rights. "This was a test case - the
Cambodian courts could have demonstrated real independence and real care for justice
Vannak had been accused of masterminding the Nov 19, 1996 murder of Kov Samuth. The
evidence against him consisted of the accusations of his two co-defendants, Sos Kasem
and Prum Mean Rith, and his own taped confession that he helped KNP members plan
However, the testimony and confessions of the two other defendants were acknowledged
by the judge to be inconsistent, and Vannak testified that he only confessed because
he feared for his life in police custody.
The three defendants were tried, found guilty and sentenced in less than seven hours.
Vannak's mother, who had cried quietly through most of the trial, clutched her son's
arm as he was led from the courtroom, sobbing, "Oh, my son!"
Vannak called out: "Mother, don't be afraid, don't worry about me."
She then slumped in the doorway, crying and saying, "Let me die, I don't want
to live any longer."
The emotionally and politically charged trial put Cambodia's justice system, after
the overthrow of Prince Norodom Ranariddh, in the spotlight.
Vannak's defender, Peung Yok Hiep, said after the trial that the judge was "not
independent, but under CPP's control," and that her case was weakened because
several KNP witnesses were in exile.
Eng Chhay Ieng, a KNP steering committee member, said by telephone from Thailand
before the trial that, since "the court is not independent but a puppet of Hun
Sen", the trial would be "only a formality."
Ministry of Justice officials declined to speak about the Vannak case. But Prak Sokhon,
a spokesman for Hun Sen, dismissed the charges of CPP influence. "Of course
you cannot be surprised at the reaction of the KNP or the lawyer," he said.
"Every lawyer will say that if their client is not happy."
However, independent observers had similar post-trial comments.
"The trial is just another example of how the Cambodian judiciary is completely
dysfunctional," said Demelza Stubbings of Amnesty International, adding that
it raised fears of politically-motivated charges being laid against people.
A Western legal expert who watched the trial said: "I know this judge. He is
intelligent, educated, he knows the law. Why doesn't he follow the law? It raises
the question of the independence of the judiciary."
The observer also questioned why the judge did not permit defenders to cross-examine
Phnom Penh criminal police chief Mok Chito, after his lengthy testimony about the
The trial judge, Nop Sophon, admitted to the Post the day before the trial that his
job was not entirely free from influence. "The police have not cooperated fully
with the court. Officially the court is supposed to be independent, but we must work
with other parties so the court is not really independent."
But the judge asserted that he was politically impartial.
Many attendees who questioned the court's impartiality focused on the fact that Judge
Sophon only took a ten-minute break between the trial and the sentencing.
A trial watcher who peered through the back window over the judge's shoulder noted
"what a long, neatly written, organized and detailed statement it was for being
written in ten minutes".
Earlier, the trial began with the defendants filing into the Phnom Penh courtroom
with strikingly different demeanors: Srun Vong Vannak in a crisp white shirt stood
straight, with his head held high; he was flanked by hangdog Prom Mean Rith in prison
blues and diminutive, unflappable Sos Kasem.
Kasem testified matter-of-factly that he had killed Samuth as the hit-man for Vannak
and that Rith had been the go-between.
Vannak was detained, without an arrest warrant, on Feb 14 and Rith on Feb 17. In
his testimony, Vannak detailed how he was handcuffed, blindfolded, interrogated and
threatened in hotels and other places for 17 days. "The police tortured me mentally
but not physically," he said.
Testifying that he did not know his co-defendants nor anything about the murder,
Vannak said that police chief Mok Chito and other policemen had pressured him to
On the first night of his detention, "I was afraid for my life so I had to tell
them what they wanted... I answered that I was behind the killing," he testified.
The police continued to keep him in isolation, he said. He made a tape recording
of his 'confession' on Mar 2, and said that he agreed under duress to allow Mok Chito
to date it Feb 15.
Vannak listened calmly as the tape was played to the court. "I answered under
intimidation. All of the answers I deny," he told the judge.
While Vannak was being questioned about his treatment at the hands of the police,
the judge broke in to tell the defendant's feisty, determined defender to stay on
"But it relates to the confession, that's why I want the details," she
"It's late already," snapped the judge.
"I wasn't aware of a time limit," said the defender in a firm but polite
tone, and continued her questions.
One of the co-defendants, Rith, initially told the court that he had never seen Vannak
before and had done nothing wrong, despite his written confession detailing how the
three set up the crime.
Rith's later testimony veered between saying he had been present at meetings to plan
the murder and asserting that he had only written his confession to jibe with Kasem's.
Kasem admitted that he shot Kov Samuth. He testified that KNP leader Sam Rainsy had
given Vannak $50,000 to hire him (Kasem) to be the trigger-man.
But the judge pointed out that Kasem's testimony was inconsistent with his own written
confession on several counts, including whether Rith knew about the murder.
In her closing arguments Vannak's defender Peung Yok Hiep pointed out all the inconsistencies
in testimony. She also had the judge read a complaint against Mok Chito into the
record, detailing the abuses Vannak suffered.
In addition, she listed all the procedural articles of the law that had been violated
in the case, any one of which requires that the case be dismissed. They include:
Vannak's illegal confinement for 17 days; denial of legal counsel for 26 days; detention
without an arrest warrant; mental torture; and detention over six months before trial.
UN Special Representative on human rights Thomas Hammarberg has previously supported
the complaints of serious procedural violations in Vannak's case.
But the arguments of Vannak's defender fell on deaf ears. The judge sentenced Rith
to 10 years, Kasem to 15 years and Vannak to 13. Vannak has 60 days to file an appeal,
but analysts are skeptical about his chances of success.
"It's clearly political," said one political observer. "If you frame
this guy, you implicate Sam Rainsy. If you implicate Sam Rainsy, you prevent his
return or can put him on trial. This is in the same basket as the charges against
Sirivudh, Ranariddh... it is the judiciary used to achieve political ends."