The heir to one of Cambodia’s largest business empires was sentenced to 20 years in prison on Thursday for plotting to rape and murder the wife and daughter of Commerce Minister Sun Chanthol, in a byzantine case sparse on evidence and fraught with claims of behind-the-scenes manipulation.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Khaou Phallaboth, a construction and agriculture magnate who assumed control of much of his father’s fortune, along with his longtime girlfriend, Lay Huong, guilty of masterminding the lurid plot.
Mr. Phallaboth was sentenced in absentia, while Ms. Huong, who was arrested in Thailand in December 2014 and extradited to Cambodia, was present in court.
“It is decided that Lay Huong and Khaou Phallaboth shall be sentenced to 20 years in prison for initiating the rape and premeditated murder attempt,” Judge San Sophat told the court, ordering the arrest and detention of Mr. Phallaboth, who is living outside the country. Judge Sophat did not explain how the court came to its decision.
A sobbing Ms. Huong told reporters she would appeal the verdict and asked Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife, Bun Rany, to come to her aid.
“Please, Samdech Techo Hun Sen and Lok Chumteav Bun Rany, help immediately,” she said as she was escorted out of the courthouse. “The court and Mr. Sun Chanthol used their power to hurt me because he hates me and hurt me by putting me in prison for 20 years.”
Mr. Phallaboth’s lawyer, Lim Vanna, said he did not know how his client would proceed.
“I have not met my client for a long time,” Mr. Vanna said, adding that he did not know where the tycoon was currently living. “I don’t know if he will ask me to continue to defend him or not.”
Mr. Chanthol, whose wife, Sun Sotha, is the sister of Mr. Phallaboth, declined to speak to a reporter on Thursday. His lawyer, Pen Vannak, said the verdict was appropriate.
“The court’s decision was based on the law,” he said.
The verdict comes more than five years after the municipal court delivered an identical ruling against Khaou Seng Chanda, the wife of family patriarch Khaou Chuly. She is now serving a 20-year sentence at Prey Sar prison.
Both cases were devoid of material evidence, and the case against Mr. Phallaboth and Ms. Huong relied almost entirely on the testimony of a maid, Chan Sokha, who was employed by Mr. Chuly and said she witnessed the defendants meeting to discuss the plot in the days before the thwarted rape-murder.
Both Ms. Sokha and another maid, Neang Sinath, who worked for Mr. Chanthol, were found guilty along with Ms. Seng Chanda after the initial trial. They were convicted of conspiring with a hit man, Sok Lak, to carry out the crime, which was allegedly prevented when Ms. Sotha closed a window at the family’s Phnom Penh villa.
No evidence has been presented to show there was an attempted break-in at the villa, and no harm came to Ms. Sotha or her daughter, who was 9 years old at the time.
During the latest trial, lawyers for Mr. Chanthol and Ms. Sotha argued that Ms. Huong and Ms. Seng Chanda arranged the attack out of anger because Mr. Chuly’s 11 children refused to recognize them as rightful members of the family. The motivation of Mr. Phallaboth, once one of the richest men in the country, has not been explained.
Ms. Huong has maintained that the case was born of power struggles within the family, and an attempt by Mr. Chanthol to secure a greater share of his father-in-law’s fortune.
Mr. Phallaboth has publicly apologized for accusing Mr. Chanthol of inventing the case, explaining he had come to realize that Ms. Huong and Ms. Seng Chanda were guilty. Ms. Huong, however, is not alone in her claims.
A statement from Mr. Chuly claiming manipulation by Mr. Chanthol was read out during the trial.
“This plot was prepared by Sun Chanthol,” the statement said. “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.”
Mr. Chanthol has previously hit back at the claims. After the Supreme Court upheld the verdict against Ms. Seng Chanda and her accomplices in October 2012, he said justice had been served.
“Please let me say that Sun Chanthol and Sun Chanthol’s family do not want one cent from Okhna Khaou Chuly,” he said. “This shows that money can’t buy justice. It is only the law that delivers justice to the victims.”
When the case first came to light, Mr. Chanthol was vice president of the Council for Development of Cambodia. He has quickly shot up the government’s ranks, and is now a senior minister in Mr. Hun Sen’s administration, expected to take control of the Transport Ministry in a Cabinet reshuffle set to take effect next month.