In a case that some say is indicative of the election-related violence and lack of proper law enforcement during the commune election campaign, the Battambang provincial court has sentenced seven people to serve between four and 15 years for killing a Sam Rainsy Party commune candidate, despite some doubts that the correct suspects were arrested.
It is one of three cases related to the commune council elections in which the courts have convicted people accused of killing a Funcinpec or Sam Rainsy Party candidate or activist.
On Nov 27, Battambang provincial authorities arrested six men accused of killing Sam Rainsy Party commune candidate Sam Sophea, who was attacked Nov 6. He died the next day from his wounds. One of the suspects arrested was Thach Theoun, a Sam Rainsy Party member who admitted to authorities that he had a personal dispute with Sam Sophea. Thach Theoun, however, denied that he was involved in the killing.
At the time of his arrest, authorities accused Thach Theoun of paying six men a total of $100 to kill Sam Sophea. When the case went to trial last week, court officials said the main evidence against Thach Theoun was the testimony of four of the suspects arrested.
Hong Kim Son, Thach Theoun’s attorney, said Thursday that the courts had no substantial evidence against his client and relied on the testimony of the four suspects, who admitted in open court to accepting about $10 each to kill Sam Sophea.
The suspects said they never spoke to Thach Theoun, Hong Kim Son and one international observer said.
The suspects testified that a middleman named Abdul Karim—a former Sam Rainsy Party deputy district chief in Battambang who was later accused by Sam Rainsy Party members of being a spy for the government—paid them, and that he told them that Thach Theoun wanted Sam Sophea killed, Hong Kim Son and the international observer said.
Both the attorney and the international observer contended said the court lacked evidence to convict Thach Theoun. But Thach Theoun was convicted Monday of complicity in the killing and sentenced to five years, according to Battambang deputy judge Bech Chhoeut.
The court Monday sentenced Thorn Vuthy to 13 years; Phay Sophal to 12 years; Im Sovana to 10 years; Nath Mao to six years and Cheat Vichet to four years. The court also tried Abdul Karim in absentia and sentenced him to 15 years.
“The police didn’t even try to arrest Abdul Karim,” Hong Kim Song said. “If the police wanted to arrest him, they could.”
Bech Chhoeut said the authorities issued an arrest warrant for Abdul Karim in December and believe he has left Battambang.
The verdict came one day after the balloting. Despite more than 20 deaths of candidates or activists, the Ministry of Interior stated Wednesday that during the campaign “there has been no politically-motivated crime.”
“Authorities have thoroughly conducted inquiries and investigated crimes and arrested criminals to be sentenced by the court except a murder and armed robbery case in Kompong Cham where authorities have yet to apprehend criminals,” the ministry stated Wednesday.
“[The statement] is an insult,” said US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann. “The government overlooked that the US and other governments have called on them to thoroughly investigate the killings of commune candidates.”
Wiedemann said at least a few of the deaths should be considered political motivated killings.
A UN report released in mid-January stated that the government failed to enforce election and criminal laws during the election year, and that 15 killings from Jan 1, 2001 to Jan 11, 2002 threatened the stability of the commune elections.
(Additional reporting by Thet Sambath)