Prisoners for the last seven months, 21 people accused of involvement in the anti-Thai riots are taken to court on September 2 to answer charges including petty theft, robbery and incitement to violence.
he accused in the anti-Thai riots that swept the city eight months ago were tried
at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on September 2 and 3. The 21 detainees, mostly
young men, answered charges including petty theft, robbery and incitement to violence.
Lawyers read statements from 37 others tried in absentia.
The court delayed its verdict until September 15. Two accused were already acquitted
of stealing IV bottles from the Royal Phnom Penh hotel on June 19.
The most serious charges, including incitement and organizing the demonstrations,
were leveled at Faculty of Law student Ken Sara and another accused, Thorn Veasna.
Sara rejected all accusations and said he only watched looters at the Thai Embassy
and two television stations.
"Arresting my client Ken Sara violates the law," said his lawyer, Mon Keosivin,
who hinted that the arrest was politically motivated.
Veasna claimed he only took one hammer and two saws from the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel.
He denies having any part in organizing the destruction.
The arrests of the accused, in addition to Beehive Radio director Mom Sonando and
Rasmei Angkor editor En Chan Sivatha who were freed pending trial, received harsh
criticism from human rights groups, who said the government had used them as scapegoats.
One human rights monitor at the trial said that political meddling began even before
the trial date was set. He said court officials worried that the independence of
the court had been compromised.
"This court could not proceed fairly according to the law," he said.
The belated trial is the centerpiece of the government's effort to bring those responsible
for the riots to justice.
The military police arrested at least 131 people in the days following the January
29 riots, which left several Thai businesses and the Thai Embassy in ruins. A number
of those arrested were minors, the youngest being 14 years old, and most arrests
occurred long after the destruction ended. Only two of the defendants at the trial
were arrested the night of the riots.
At the time, LICADHO, a human rights NGO, reported that several of those arrested
were jailed illegally without proper legal representation or access to their families.
When the authorities filed criminal charges on January 31, only 43 of the original
suspects were indicted because of a lack of evidence, admitted Chea Eng Yong, a national
representative for the military police. No witnesses were called during the course
of the trial and evidence was often based on statements from military police.
But many of the defendants said they only admitted crimes because of coercion by
Cheang Kea, 35, accused of theft, said he didn't steal anything from the Royal Phnom
Penh Hotel, which was burned to the ground.
"I told the military police that I had a screwdriver in my hand because they
said if I answer their questions about what I had in my hand, they would release
me," he said.
At least eleven others who stand accused of stealing items such as scrap metal, vegetables,
gasoline and soap claimed that military police coerced confessions from them.
Eng Yong, the military representative testifying at the court, denied the accusation.
"We asked the suspects questions according to the law and we respect their human
rights," he said. Eng Yong said the soldiers rounded up those lingering around
the Royal Phnom Penh hotel to maintain order.
"Our military police arrested only people who held small and unimportant things,"
he said. "We arrested them to keep the stability and prevent other people from
going into the scene to take something."
The plight of the defendants attracted the notice of the Royal Palace. Sisowath Thomico,
a member of the Royal Cabinet, came to watch the proceedings on September 2. He commented
that arresting poor people for petty theft cast doubt on the government's commitment
to finding the real perpetrators.
"I wonder why the government must pay $54 million to the Thais, but has only
arrested people who stole IV bottles, pots, plates and scrap metal," he said.
Defense lawyers have promised to appeal to King Norodom Sihanouk if their clients
are convicted, but the King has yet to intervene.
The question of who is to blame, and how reparations will be paid, has dogged the
government since the Thais issued demands for a "full explanation", "compensation
for all losses" and "justice [for] the perpetrators [of the riot]"
in a statement on January 30.
Although the cost of repairing the Thai embassy, about $6 million, was rumored to
have been paid by casino owners in April, restitution for many of the businesses
has not been paid. The Bangkok Post reported on Septemer 11 that only five of the
17 damaged Thai businesses received compensation. Some were reportedly offered tax
breaks, land rents and long-term concessions.
Prime Minister Hun Sen agreed to "unconditional compensation" for damage
to Thai assets and vowed to find those responsible in February. A confidential US
State Department report states that Cambodian officials assured the US they would
"identify the ringleaders among the rioters".
The government initially accused "unidentified extremists" of sparking
the violence and later insinuated that opposition party leader Sam Rainsy had played
a part. Although this was discredited, government officials said the inquiry continues
"We will conduct further investigation of who is the big fish," said Khieu
Sopheak, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior. "If [we don't find] the big
fish, the small fish is okay."
But the US report clearly identifies the Pagoda Boys, a violent pro-Hun Sen group,
as assuming a "leadership role [that ] fueled the violence" during the
riot. The group's culpability in the night's "systematic" destruction presumably
marks its leaders for prosecution.
That is not the case, said Sopheak. He would neither confirm nor deny the government's
knowledge about the Pagoda Boy's involvement in the riots, but insisted the government
lacked the evidence to prosecute them.
"We don't know if Pagoda Boys have responsibility in front of the law,"
said Sopheak. "It is very easy to point the finger, but we need evidence. We
rely on judicial power to make those people face trial."