Phnom Penh Municipal Court today sentenced two Thai nationals, including a senior Yellow Shirt activist, to lengthy jail terms in a high-profile case that has strained diplomatic ties between Bangkok and Phnom Penh.
In a day-long hearing today, Judge Suos Sam Ath found Veera Somkwamkid, a leader of the Thailand Patriot Network, and his secretary Ratree Taiputana Taiboon guilty of espionage, illegal entry and unlawfully entering a military base.
Veera, 53, was sentenced to eight years in jail and ordered to pay 1.8 million riel (about US$444) in fines, while Ratree received a six-year prison term.
In handing down his verdict, Suos Sam Ath rejected an earlier request from the defendants that the case be reinvestigated.
“The court found that they entered Cambodia illegally, entered a military base with ill-will and collected information which could damage the national defence,” Suos Sam Ath told the court.
“The court decided not to consider the request from the defendants for the reinvestigation of the case, since it has enough evidence to prosecute the accused.”
During the hearing, Veera remained defiant, dismissing the charges against him and claiming that he was arrested on Thai soil.
“I didn’t have any intention to visit the military base or to cause disaster for the neighbouring country. The court is listening only to the Cambodian side without considering my comment so it is unjust for me,” he told the judges.
“I request the court to reinvestigate at the border, then I will pay the expense. If the court finds it is Cambodian land, then I would accept the mistake, though I still stand firm on my view that it is Thai land.”
Following the verdict, police escorted the pair into a police truck that took them to Prey Sar prison.
Speaking outside the courthouse, Pich Vicheka, a Cambodian lawyer representing the two defendants, said he would discuss with his clients whether to file an appeal.
He declined to comment on the court’s verdict.
The two Thais were part of a group of seven who were arrested on December 29 in Banteay Meanchey’s O’Chrou district, claiming they were investigating the demarcation of the two countries’ shared border.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court last month convicted five of the group of illegal entry and unlawfully entering a military base, but suspended their nine-month jail terms.
The high-profile case has stoked nationalist sentiment in Thailand, where yellow-shirt protestors from the People’s Alliance for Democracy have taken to the streets to demand Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva secure the Thais’ release.
Chheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said the verdict against Veera and his secretary would only increase the pressure on the government.
“I think the Yellow Shirts will mobilise more forces, in order to protest for Abhisit to increase tensions at the border,” he said.
“I think the problem is on the Thai side: whether the Thai side is willing to build a good relationship.”
He said that a Thai decision to resort to force would only increase tensions, and would “not change Cambodia’s position” on the arrests.
The verdict also comes amid a diplomatic spat over the presence of a Cambodian flag at Wat Keo Sikha Kiri Svara, a small pagoda close to Preah Vihear temple.
On Monday, the Thai Foreign Ministry issued a diplomatic note claiming sovereignty over the land on which the pagoda sits, and demanding that Cambodia “remove both the pagoda and the Cambodian flag” flying over it.
“This is a reiteration of the many protests that Thailand has submitted to Cambodia regarding the activities carried out in the pagoda and the surrounding area, all of which constitute violations of sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Thailand,” the statement said.
In a statement today, the Cambodian Foreign Ministry responded that the pagoda lay inside Cambodia’s legal territory as determined by the 1962 International Court of Justice ruling that awarded Preah Vihear temple to Cambodia.
“Therefore,” the statement added, “the Keo Sikha Kiri Svara pagoda is legally well situated in Cambodian territory; and by no means will Cambodia relocate this pagoda elsewhere and Cambodia will continue to fly its flag there.”
According to the statement, a Cambodian flag has been flying over the pagoda since its construction in 1998.
It added that the country reserved the right to defend its territory against Abhisit’s threats to “wage war” against Cambodia.
Today, however, Abhisit reportedly denied Thailand had requested the removal of the pagoda.
“We have never said that the Keo Sikha Kiri Svara pagoda should be demolished. We said only that the Cambodian flag flying over the temple should be removed,” the Bangkok Post quoted him as saying.
Abhisit also claimed that a Thai flag had been hoisted close to the disputed pagoda, according to a situation report prepared by Defence Minister Prawit Wongsuwon, but did not give additional details.
Meanwhile, the United States has called on both sides to damp down tensions.
“We call on all sides to exercise restraint, to deal with this in a peaceful manner and lower the tensions over the situation,” Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence Derek Mitchell told reporters today at the end of a three-day visit to Cambodia.
“That’s the most important thing.” ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY SEBASTIAN STRANGIO AND THOMAS MILLER