A Supreme Court judge Monday convicted 26 of 28 alleged rebels in the nation’s largest terrorism investigation ever, sentencing them to prison for three to 15 years for their involvement in a failed raid on the capital a year ago.
The sentences followed a one-week trial in which several defendants claimed they were ignorant of the charges filed against them or had been forced to confess to belonging to the Cambodian Freedom Fighters, a shadowy US-based anti-communist organization that took credit for the botched Nov 24 raid that killed at least four people.
Relatives wept outside the Supreme Court Monday morning as the convicted men, many of them their family’s breadwinner, were carried away in a large bus to Prey Sar prison at the conclusion of the trial.
“My son is a real worker, he is not a member of the CFF,” said Mom Chien, 62, the father of Mom Chey, who received a five- year prison sentence. He pleaded with the court to release his son, crying with his wife over the trial’s outcome.
“Nowadays I am too old. How can I live without the help of my son?”
Two of the suspects were acquitted of all charges and released for lack of evidence. The remaining defendants were charged with terrorism and membership in an illegal armed group, violations of article 36 of the Untac law and article 3 of Cambodian state law.
Among the convicted was suspect Doung Sopheap, who won the support of King Norodom Sihanouk in his plea for amnesty after he turned himself in to Cambodian authorities in Thailand.
His family believed he would be safe from prosecution after Prime Minister Hun Sen made a televised appeal in which he promised amnesty for any CFF member who turned himself in.
“I am very upset with the court’s decision today,” said Tao Moy, 33, Doung Sopheap’s wife. “If I knew that Prime Minister Hun Sen would tell us a lie I would have banned my husband from returning to Cambodia from Thailand.”
The trial was the second in the government’s investigation of the Cambodian Freedom Fighters.
A trial in June lead to convictions for 30 of 32 accused rebels.
An ongoing government drive against the CFF has continued to net a few suspects almost every week since September, drawing complaints from human rights officers and some political leaders that innocent individuals are being tarred by allegations of CFF membership.
Some 54 suspects detained in the government’s ongoing investigation are awaiting trial, according to a human rights officer.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee sent a letter last month asking the government to close the case against the CFF and desist from further arrests, according to CHRAC chairperson Sok Sam Oeun. Sok Sam Oeun is also executive director of the Cambodian Defender’s Project, which sent five lawyers to defend some of the CFF suspects. Two lawyers from the Cambodian Bar Association and two private attorneys represented the other defendants.
In a statement released Monday, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee said it was “deeply concerned about the consequences for Cambodia of the activities of a group claiming itself as the Cambodian Freedom Fighters and the actions of the government to deal with this group.”
The statement condemned violence against the government and asked officials to honor legal procedures that require a fair trial and certain pre-trial rights, including the opportunity to meet with a lawyer.
This trial was a marked improvement over the proceedings in June, Sok Sam Oeun said. Judge Sok Setha Mony presented more reasoning for each of his decisions than he did in the last trial, he said.
The court’s decisions have been watched closely by legal observers who are concerned the Cambodian judiciary faces an even larger test of its legal ability in a planned tribunal of Khmer Rouge leaders.
The UN-assisted tribunal was expected before the end of the year, but no date has been set.
The June proceedings earned scorn from several human rights groups for failing to provide even basic rights to the defendants, including the right to private discussions with an attorney and family visits in prison.
The first day of the trial was nearly canceled when defense lawyers walked out in protest of the extreme security at the trial, including muzzled attack dogs and armed soldiers.
Human rights officials had many of the same complaints this time around, saying the defendants were denied important legal rights as they awaited trial.
Most pressing was the government’s delay in holding the trial, detaining the suspects well beyond the six-month maximum ordered by Cambodian law. Many of the defendants have been in prison for 10 months.
“We’re more concerned with the fact that many of them were held longer than six months and many of them were denied medical care. And many of them did not have access to their lawyers. If they did it wasn’t a private meeting,” a Licadho official said.
An officer from Human Rights Watch also said the second trial had the same problems as the first.
“We had many of the same concerns as in the first trial, including [the defendant’s] poor access to lawyers, a lengthy pretrial detention and in particular, the lack of access to medical care for all prisoners,” the officer said.
Despite requests, no one from Human Rights Watch has been allowed into Prey Sar prison to visit the convicted or suspected rebels or to monitor prison conditions, the officer said.
Appeals were filed for many of the defendants in the first trial, but it’s not known when the appeals will be heard, if ever. Unlike the law that requires a trial six months after a person is arrested and charged with a crime, there is no time limit for hearing an appeal, Sok Sam Oeun said.
Attorney David Chaniawa, who represented two clients in the first CFF trial in June, said the appeals he filed for both of his clients have yet to be heard. He has not been allowed to visit either man in prison, he said.
“I feel there is no due process,” he said.
Most families were left feeling the same way after the trial’s end on Monday.
“My son came to Phnom Penh for a job, he is not a member of the CFF,” said Ngim Em, 55, the mother of Phy Sovan, who was sentenced to seven years in prison. “How can I feed my four grand children without my son?”