Thong Sarath, a former military general with vast business holdings, was a no-show on Friday as his long-awaited murder trial began at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. He stands accused of ordering the assassination of tycoon Ung Meng Chue outside a fruit shop in 2014.
One of his personal bodyguards was accused of carrying out the hit. Three other bodyguards are being tried as accomplices to the murder, which was recorded by a security camera outside the shop. Ung Meng Chue was shot six times as he stepped out of his Lexus SUV on November 22, 2014.
Mr. Sarath, 38, was identified as the chief suspect in the murder on December 3, 2014, but fled before police raided his family’s Phnom Penh villas. Subsequently placed on Interpol’s most-wanted list, he turned himself in to police in April last year but has maintained his innocence.
Opening the trial at 8:30 a.m. on Friday, Presiding Judge Top Chhun Heng said the court had decided that Mr. Sarath did not have to attend the hearing because he was sick, and had already been questioned by an investigating judge.
“He has pain in his stomach, his blood pressure is low and his condition is not stable,” Judge Chhun Heng said of Mr. Sarath, who has been in and out of the Khmer-Soviet Friendship Hospital since his arrest.
The only defendant questioned during the hearing was Koy Chanthul, 30, one of the three bodyguards charged as accomplices. Mr. Sarath was charged with instigating premeditated murder, while his bodyguard Sieng Veasna, 45, stands accused of pulling the trigger.
Ly Sao, 42, another of Mr. Sarath’s bodyguards, was also charged with murder for serving as the getaway driver but died in prison last month due to encephalitis, according to officials.
Mr. Chanthul, who allegedly acted as a lookout during the murder, told the court on Friday that he was not involved in the crime—carried out at about 7 p.m. on a Saturday evening—and knew nothing about it.
“On the day of the murder, I was working from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Borey 999,” he said, referring to the real estate and construction firm owned by Mr. Sarath, who holds the honorific “oknha,” common among wealthy businessmen with close ties to the ruling party.
“On that day, I did not go outside from the morning to the night,” Mr. Chanthul said. “I was working at Borey 999 with Meas Sambath, Ly Sao and Mr. Chuy to protect Mr. Oknha,” he said.
Mr. Sambath is believed to have been riding on a lookout motorbike. He was present in the courtroom along with Mr. Veasna and Chhun Chetra, 48, another bodyguard who allegedly lent his motorbike to his colleagues for use during the hit.
Speaking by telephone after the hearing, Tey Visal, deputy chief of the municipal police’s serious crimes bureau, said the central evidence tying the case together were confessions Mr. Veasna and Ly Sao made to police.
“Sieng Veasna and Ly Sao confessed that on November 20, Mr. Oknha Thong Sarath ordered them to kill Oknha Ung Meng Chue, and both of them secretly observed Oknha Ung Meng Chue from November 20 until November 22,” he said.
Mr. Visal said the men claimed to have returned the murder weapon to Mr. Sarath at about 8 p.m. on the night of the murder, adding that Mr. Veasna also told police about a telephone call he made to Mr. Chanthul.
“Sieng Veasna called Koy Chanthul after he committed the crime and said ‘I killed an oknha,’ and Koy Chanthul replied, ‘Why did you kill an oknha?’ and Sieng Veasna said, ‘I act when someone gives me money,’” the bureau chief said.
Mr. Sarath’s lawyer, Tuot Lux, said he had video evidence which proved that no gun was given to his client on the night of the murder.
“In the video clip from Oknha Thong Sarath’s house, it does not show Sieng Veasna and Ly Sao meeting with him,” the lawyer said, adding that Mr. Veasna did not show up for work on the two days leading up to the murder.
Judge Chhun Heng said the trial would continue on August 8.