Trial Ends in Lurid Case of Tycoon Versus Gov’t Minister

The byzantine trial of one of Cambodia’s wealthiest tycoons and his former girlfriend—who stand accused of plotting the rape and murder of the commerce minister’s wife and daughter in 2010—came to a close at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday, with lawyers for the ex-couple lamenting a lack of evidence in the case.

A deputy prosecutor also announced during the hearing that the court had mistakenly charged the pair with the wrong crime.

The tycoon, Khaou Phallaboth, president of the Khaou Chuly Group, a family business founded by his father, is currently living in Malaysia and was charged in absentia. His former girlfriend, Lay Huong, 50, was apprehended in Thailand in December 2014 and has consistently denied involvement in any murder plot. Both were initially charged with “initiating a rape and premeditated murder attempt.”

Several others have already been convicted in the long-running case, including Khaou Chuly’s second wife, Khaou Seng Chanda, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2011 for hiring a hitman to rape and murder the wife and 9-year-old daughter of the commerce minister, Sun Chanthol. Mr. Chanthol’s wife, Sun Sotha, is Mr. Chuly’s daughter and Mr. Phallaboth’s sister.

The hitman and two maids— one working for the commerce minister, the other for Mr. Phallaboth’s aging father—are serving sentences of between 18 and 20 years.

First to speak during the fourth and final hearing of the trial on Friday was Kong Chamroeun, one of two lawyers for Mr. Chanthol and Ms. Sotha. While offering no evidence, he claimed that Ms. Seng Chanda and Ms. Huong arranged the attack on the commerce minister’s family to get revenge for the lack of respect they received from Mr. Phallaboth’s 10 siblings, who did not treat them as the rightful wives of the two tycoons.

Deputy prosecutor Sieng Sok argued that Mr. Phallaboth and Ms. Huong had failed to exonerate themselves over the course of the trial.

“The defendants refused to answer questions during the hearings and did not have evidence that the court could accept,” he said.

Mr. Sok also announced that the court had erroneously charged Mr. Phallaboth and Ms. Huong under the Criminal Code, which did not come into effect until the end of 2010—after the crime was allegedly committed. He said the pair now stood charged under the 1992 Untac law and 2001 Law on Aggravating Circumstances of Crimes.

Next to speak was Sao Noeun, a lawyer for Ms. Huong, who noted that his client was a witness during the previous trial against the defendants charged in 2011.

“If my client was a perpetrator, my client would not have been calm and acted as a witness,” Mr. Noeun said.

Echoing an argument put forth by Ms. Huong during a hearing in December, he said that the testimony of Mr. Chuly’s maid, Chan Sokha—who has implicated Ms. Huong in the plot—should be discounted, as she had given conflicting statements to the court. Ms. Sokha previously accused the commerce minister of concocting the plot in order to take down the wives of the tycoons.

“She accused my client and the court took action, so if Ms. Chan Sokha accuses the plaintiff [Mr. Chanthol], the court should take action against him, too,” Mr. Noeun said.

Another lawyer for Ms. Huong, Chan Sok Yeang, urged the court to base its judgment on the words of Mr. Chuly, whose advanced age, the lawyer argued, precluded him from dishonesty.

“Only children and old people speak the truth,” he said. “Please, judges, consider the answers of tycoon Khaou Chuly because he is an old person.”

In statements read out by a clerk on Thursday, Mr. Chuly denies his own involvement in the plot and fingers the commerce minister.

“This plot was prepared by Sun Chanthol,” he says. “I knew that His Excellency Sun Chanthol had prepared this plan because he wanted my property and was afraid that my wife would get it.”

Lim Vanna, a lawyer for Mr. Phallaboth, said Ms. Sokha had also framed his client, a gentle man incapable of the cruelty he is accused of. He described the maid as a great asset to the prosecution—and a liar.

“I think only the greatest witness can break up this family,” he said sardonically.

Last to speak was Ms. Huong herself, who approached the stand with tears in her eyes.

“I never discussed or prepared a plan to kill anyone,” she said. “Please, judges, release me so I can meet my children and my family.”

A verdict is due on the afternoon of March 24.

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