Two Thai nationals and an Egyptian were charged Wednesday with involvement in international terrorism and accused of having links to Islamic extremist group Jemaah Islamiyah, which was blamed for last year’s terrorist bombings in Bali, Indonesia.
Cambodian authorities also ordered the closure of an Islamic school in Kandal province where the three suspects worked, and the expulsion from Cambodia of an additional 35 foreign Islamic teachers and their dependents based at the school.
Thai Muslims Abdul Azi Haji Chiming, 35, and Muhammad Yalaludin Mading, 41, and Egyptian Esam Mohammed Khidr Ali, 41, were charged in Phnom Penh Municipal Court following their arrest in Kandal on Sunday, police officials said.
“They are charged with international terrorist acts involved with [Jemaah Islamiyah],” said Investigating Judge Oun Bunna after the three were questioned at the courthouse and then whisked to Prey Sar prison.
The arrests followed information provided by the US, said police General Sok Phal, director of the Interior Ministry’s Information Department. Police are hunting for more suspects linked to Islamic extremist groups, Sok Phal added.
Jemaah Islamiyah militant cells operate throughout Southeast Asia. Their goal is to create an Islamic state covering Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and the southern Philippines. The arrests of group members in Phnom Penh coincided with the court appearance in Jakarta of Indonesian Muslim cleric Abu Bakar Bashir, who is accused of being the movement’s leader. The first of four men arrested in connection with the Oct 12 Bali bombing, which killed 202 people, took the stand Wednesday as prosecutors sought to link Bashir to the attack. Arrests of Jemaah Islamiyah members have revealed links to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network.
Sok Phal said evidence to arrest the three in Cambodia came from confessions from Islamic militants already in custody elsewhere, bank transfers to Cambodia and telephone conversations.
“We did this arrest by cooperating with US officials. We can say the investigation took years,” he said, adding that the arrest removed some concerns regarding security for the visit of US Secretary of State Colin Powell to the Asean Regional Forum on June 18 in Phnom Penh. US Embassy officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.
The Islamic school where the three men worked in Kandal province, the Om-Alqura Institute, was officially opened in 1998 by Prime Minister Hun Sen, staff members said on Wednesday.
The institute offers Islamic-based primary and high school education for almost 600 ethnic Cham students with funds provided by the Saudi Arabia-based NGO. Staff, pupils and foreign teachers at the school, located in Kandal’s Muk Kampul district, said they were bewildered by the arrests and the possible presumption the school was a training camp for Islamic militants.
“I feel very surprised by what has happened. It is unbelievable,” said Pich Solin, director of general education at Om-Alqura.
“The students here are not radicals. They respect all the rules from the Ministry of Education,” said Pich Solin, adding that the two Thai nationals arrested had been teachers at the institute for around eight months.
The Egyptian suspect, Esam Mohammed Khidr Ali, was the director of the NGO that funded the institute. He had been living in Cambodia for around three months, Pich Solin said.
According to Pich Solin, the institute has been ordered shut and all foreign teachers to leave Cambodia within 72 hours.
The closure will mean 599 students must go back to their home provinces, while 26 Cambodian teachers at the institute are now out of jobs, he said. The 36 foreign teachers at the school, who mostly taught Arabic language classes, were from Yemen, Thailand, Malaysia and Pakistan, he said.
“This has made us feel bad,” said 18-year-old Musertad from Sihanoukville, who has been studying at the school for five years. “This school is for educating Cambodian students. It is not a center for anything else.”
Kum Ry, 17, a student from Kompong Chhnang province, said he was worried that people may think the institute was a hotbed of Islamic militancy.
“That is wrong. This school is for studying,” Kum Ry said.
CPP parliamentarian Othsman Hassan, leader of the Cham community in Cambodia, also paid a visit to the institute on Wednesday to explain to the staff and students why they were being sent home.
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)