The Phnom Penh Municipal Court of Appeal on May 23 delivered a ruling in the cases of four ADHOC officials and one former official of the local rights group, upholding the lower court’s guilty verdict in all of their cases.

The five rights defenders were sentenced to five-year prison terms on charges of bribing a witness in the trial of Kem Sokha – former president of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

The charges stemmed from claims that Sokha was having an extra-marital affair with a 24-year-old hairdresser named Khom Chandaraty, who later turned witness against him. Prosecutors claimed that the five bribed her in order to induce her to deny her previous statements and testimony concerning her relationship with Sokha.

The defendants were not present for the hearing and the court’s ruling was delivered in-absentia.

Appeal Court Judge Visal read out the ruling in the presence of the defence lawyers representing Lim Mony, Nay Vanda, Ny Sokha and Yi Soksan, while Sam Sokong – the lawyer for Ny Chakrya – was absent for reasons that weren’t made clear during the proceedings.

Judge Visal’s ruling stated that according to the facts and statements presented to the court on April 28, 2022, the five accused testified that the $204 ADHOC gave to Chandaraty was for help with her food expenses only and not indicative of a quid pro quo agreement, and thus they did not bribe the witness as charged by the court.

The judge said that according to video evidence, Chandaraty spoke on the phone with Sokha and arranged a meeting in Thailand with him. Given the fact that the man’s voice sounded like Sokha’s, this rendered her testimony plausible and the evidence corroborated her claims.

The municipal court sentenced Mony, Vanda, Sokha, Soksan and Chakrya to five years in prison each on September 26, 2018. He then suspended all but 14 months of their sentences – the duration which they had already spent in pre-trial detention – and declared that their time had been served.

However, on the day of the hearing at the Appeal Court, Prosecutor Im Sophan requested that the trial chamber hear the cases of the five over again in full and re-impose their original sentences of five years in prison without parole, but the motion was denied by the court and addressed by Judge Visal when he read the ruling.

“This case doesn’t need to be retried by the Appeal Court trial chamber because the lower court’s decision – which gave the defendants credit for their 14 months held in detention as time served – was in line with the damage they had caused by their offences and the severity and nature of their crimes. The Phnom Penh Municipal Court of Appeal thus rules that the sentences delivered by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court will be upheld,” Judge Visal said.

Sam Tith Seiha, attorney for four of the defendants, spoke to reporters after the Appeal Court issued its ruling, saying he will talk with his clients about whether to file any further appeals.

“What I regret is the absence of Khom Chandaraty and Try Chhuon, who were key witnesses in the original trial ending in the conviction of my clients at the municipal court. The Court of Appeal only based its rulings on the statements made by these two women, who provided the sole basis for the court to charge my clients in the first place.

“Therefore, the absence of the only two people who provided testimony in evidence against them precludes the possibility of the court reaching a just outcome for my four clients at today’s hearing,” he said.