Convicted Rebel Leader Claims Quest for Osama bin Laden

During their appeal hearing at the Supreme Court on Wednesday, members of a group convicted of attempting to overthrow the government claimed they thought they were on a multimillion-dollar mission to find and kill Osama bin Laden.

The six men were convicted by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in 2011 of attempting an armed overthrow of the state as members of a group called Sovanna Phum, or Golden Village. The Appeal Court upheld the verdict in 2013 along with the prison sentences, which ranged from 15 to 17 years.

Convicted insurgents Liv Soksovann, left, and Chum Vichey arrive for their appeal hearing at the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Convicted insurgents Liv Soksovann, left, and Chum Vichey arrive for their appeal hearing at the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

At their hearing before the Supreme Court on Wednesday, ex-soldier Chea Sarann, the alleged ringleader, claimed—apparently for the first time—that when he was approached by a man named That Thai in 2007, he thought he was being recruited to hunt down former Taliban leader Osama bin Laden, who was supposedly hiding out in Cambodia.

“I can’t topple the government because I worked for [Prime Minister] Hun Sen for 12 years after the Khmer Rouge,” he told the court. “I got information from someone named That Thai, who told me to organize a movement to find out where bin Laden was and he would give us $20 million.”

Mr. Sarann, who allegedly founded Sovanna Phum in 2006 while working as a security guard for the Sam Rainsy Party, said That Thai, who was not identified by anything other than his name throughout the hearing, had also offered him the rank of brigadier general for his trouble.

“Did you believe bin Laden came to Cambodia?” Judge Kem Sathavy asked.

“I was not sure that bin Laden was in Cambodia, but I was offered a lot of money so I wanted to complete the plan to help my family,” Mr. Sarann replied.

“I am appealing today because the municipal court was wrong,” he said. “We were only private investigators, not a movement to topple the government.”

Osama bin Laden was killed by a team of U.S. Navy Seals in Pakistan in May 2011.

Another defendant, Chum Vichey, said Mr. Sarann had recruited him to conduct unspecified “research” on unidentified “people” and that That Thai told him the mission was being backed by Om Yentieng, who was then an adviser to Mr. Hun Sen and is now chairman of the Anti-Corruption Unit. Mr. Vichey also told the court he had a mental illness.

Judge Sathavy said none of the evidence suggested they were on a mere research mission.

Nou Chantha, the group’s lawyer, argued that there was also scant evidence to prove they were on an armed mission to topple the government.

“If they wanted to topple the government, they would need a base, or weapons,” he said. “If they wanted to oppose the government, they would not have had only a few guns.”

When the men were arrested in Phnom Penh in March 2011, a national military police official said they were also involved in illegal weapons but did not say whether police had actually found any weapons.

The other defendants are Liv Soksovann, Phlort Ry, Yom Hev and Port Phor. During their 2013 hearing at the Appeal Court, even the prosecutor said Mr. Hev and Mr. Phor were most likely innocent and should be released.

The Supreme Court said it would announce its decision on Wednesday.

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