Thong Sarath, who has gone into hiding after being accused of ordering the murder of a prominent businessman last month, was charged in absentia by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday, while four of his bodyguards were charged with carrying out the hit, court officials said.
Major General Sarath, a deputy cabinet chief at the Ministry of Defense with extensive property and business interests, allegedly ordered his bodyguards to assassinate Shimmex Group chairman Ung Meng Chue, who was shot dead outside a fruit store in Chamkar Mon district on November 22.
The whereabouts of the tycoon remain unknown after he fled a series of police raids on his villas in Phnom Penh on Wednesday night, but his bodyguards have been sent to prison to await trial.
“I charged the four men, two with premeditated murder and two with being accomplices and I decided to send them to pretrial detention in Prey Sar,” Investigating Judge Ly Sokleng said by phone on Friday.
The judge declined to comment on whether he had charged Maj. Gen. Sarath with a crime. However, deputy prosecutor Keo Socheat confirmed that the fugitive general had also been charged.
“Sieng Veasna and Ly Sao were charged with premeditated murder and the other two men, Meas Sambath and Koy Chanthul, were charged with being accomplices to premeditated murder,” he said. “Oknha [Thong Sarath] has also been charged with instigating premeditated murder.”
According to police, Mr. Veasna and Mr. Sao confessed to driving a motorbike to the fruit shop, where Mr. Veasna fired six bullets into Ung Meng Chue’s torso as he stepped out of his SUV. Police say Mr. Sambath and Mr. Chanthul confessed to acting as lookouts on a separate bike.
But speaking to reporters on Friday, the bodyguards insisted that their confessions were coerced and denied their involvement in the killing.
“Police beat me and forced me to confess. They broke my right leg,” Mr. Sao said outside the courtroom, adding that he had an alibi for the time of the attack.
“When the incident happened, me and Oknha Thong Sarath’s brother, Thong Bunna, were eating fried beef in Sach Ang Phoum Yoeung restaurant near the Russian Embassy…and the restaurant’s security cameras show I was there from 7 p.m. until 9:30 p.m,” he said.
Another of the suspects, Mr. Chanthul, said he too was elsewhere when the murder was carried out.
“I did not commit the crime and I don’t know about it because at the time I was with [alleged accomplice] Meas Sambath playing cards near Borey 999 in Chak Angre Krom commune,” he said, referring to the apartment blocks being developed by their boss.
Mr. Veasna, who allegedly shot Ung Meng Chue, shook his head when asked if he was guilty of the crime.
The suspects’ wives, who were at the court on Friday, also pleaded their husbands’ innocence.
“My husband was with me all day Saturday,” said Pok San, the 32-year-old wife of Mr. Chanthul. “When he finished playing cards, we cooked food for dinner and then we went to sleep so I can guarantee my husband was not involved.”
Despite the fact that they continue to protest their innocence, the lawyer for the four bodyguards, Chong Eav Heng, said that there was little he could do, as they already admitted their guilt.
“They confessed already. How can I challenge [the charges]… when the court did not force my client to give their answer.”
Deputy municipal police chief Chuon Narin said it was normal for suspects in a murder case to publicly claim their innocence.
“Normally, the suspects will always deny that they committed the crime,” he said outside the court on Friday. “But I participated in the questioning and we neither beat them or forced them to confess.”
The fugitive general’s parents, Thong Chamroeun, 65, and Keo Sary, 55, were also arrested after calling a press conference on Wednesday evening to say they had told their son to go into hiding.
The pair was due to be charged on Friday, but there was not enough time to prepare their case, according to Eng Sorphea, the municipal penal police chief.
“We will send them to the court [Saturday] morning,” he said.