A list of names seized from a convicted terrorist’s computer has been used in the government investigation into the outlawed Cambodian Freedom Fighters.
Authorities have detained people whose names appear on the list, which has led to at least one man’s wrongful imprisonment after he was mistaken for someone else with the same name.
Released one week after his terrifying ordeal began, Kim Sopheak, a US citizen, said recently he thought his Cambodian captors were going to shoot him once they decided he was the same Kim Sopheak listed on an organizational chart of the CFF, a US-based group that has vowed to topple the Hun Sen government.
“I asked them, ‘What’s wrong with me, why are you keeping my passport?’” he said. “They didn’t tell me. They told me not to worry.”
The list of names was seized from a computer used by convicted CFF member Richard Kiri-Kim, now serving a life sentence at Prey Sar prison for his part in a botched CFF raid on Phnom Penh nearly one year ago.
The case of Kim Sopheak underscores the concern among some human rights groups that the government’s investigation of the CFF—now conducted largely behind closed doors—has become more of a threat to individual civil liberties than to terrorism.
Even government spokesman Khieu Khanarith agreed the CFF organizational chart should not be used as the sole piece of evidence against someone if their name—a name they may simply share with someone else—appears on the chart.
“We cannot rely on just the computer. The list is a short list only,” he said. The suspect must also confess to belonging to the rebel group, or be identified by two or three people as a CFF member, before they can be charged, he said.
The organizational chart has been relied on so heavily in the government’s drive to rout the CFF that Bun Mony, a man suspected of CFF activity who did not appear on the chart, was released from prison and acquitted of all charges.
The government’s prosecution of the rebel group has already earned complaints from activists after suspects were denied what they said are basic rights, including prison visitation.
Requests from media and human rights workers to visit suspects or convicted CFF members in jail have been denied, and only in brief moments before and after the trials of alleged freedom fighters has anyone had a chance to talk to the suspects directly.
A Cambodia Daily reporter was again turned away at Prey Sar prison last Thursday when he tried to meet with an inmate.
A human rights official said that in the last two weeks the government has refused even to confirm rumors of arrests, a change since the beginnings of the investigation, when government officials would provide at least basic information, the rights worker said.
Kim Sopheak, who has lived in the US state of Minnesota since leaving Cambodia in 1981, but has returned for several visits, said he was stopped Aug 23 at the Poipet border crossing as he traveled to Bangkok with his girlfriend.
He was held at the border for several hours, then placed in a Toyota Camry and told he was being driven to Phnom Penh for questioning. He said he feared the road trip was a ruse meant to take him away to his execution.
“The officer from Poipet [who was driving] was drunk the whole way,” he said. “There were three soldiers in the car. One in front and one on each side of me.”
His girlfriend was held for a day and a half, he said. After questioning was she allowed to leave.
“She was told: ‘You should be buying the police officers some drinks because you are lucky,’” Kim Sopheak said. His girlfriend left for Phnom Penh as soon as she was released.
Kim Sopheak would only learn later that he was detained because his name matched that of a man from the US city of Philadelphia, a Cambodian-American who allegedly planned to become the Cambodian Foreign Minister if the CFF was ever successful in its quest to overthrow the Hun Sen government.
In Phnom Penh, police took Kim Sopheak to a holding area used by the Ministry of Interior for foreigners. He said he was not sure where he was in the city, but that he was better off than suspects who were held in common police jail cells.
The first day of his detention he was interrogated by two police officers. He was asked several times if he was a member of the CFF, or if he knew Chhun Yasith, the accountant based in Long Beach, California, who identifies himself as the leader of the CFF.
Chhun Yasith has been investigated by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation for making threats against the Hun Sen government, a possible violation of the Neutrality Act, which states that a US citizen cannot declare war against a nation that the US is at peace with. He has not yet been charged with a crime.
At some point early in his detention, Kim Sopheak said, he was able to use a cell phone tucked in his jacket to contact friends in Phnom Penh. Staff at the US Embassy were contacted, either by Kim Sopheak’s friends or by the Cambodian authorities themselves, and negotiation for Kim Sopheak’s release began.
Much of the negotiations were off the record, and neither side would comment when asked for details. At some point, it became clear that the man the authorities were looking for was in Philadelphia, not in their jail cell, and Kim Sopheak’s release was granted Aug 30.
A US Embassy official refused to comment on the case directly, citing privacy laws. Embassy Deputy Chief Alex Arvisu did say that fewer than five Cambodian-Americans have required consular services due to the government’s investigation of the CFF. He said he does not know exactly how many Cambodian-Americans have been arrested.
Police contacted for this story also refused to comment. One high-ranking police officer said that the newspaper did not need to ask questions about Kim Sopheak.
The organizational chart has also figured prominently in the court trials against the suspects. It was a primary piece of evidence against many of the suspects, and the only evidence other than confessions or statements from other members that directly implicated the suspects in CFF activity.
Attorney Puth Thavey, who represented 10 of the suspects in the government‘s first trial of CFF members in June, argued in that trial that the organizational chart was insufficient grounds to charge his clients with membership in the rebel force.
On suspect in particular, Bun Mony, seemed unfairly targeted, he said.
“Only in Cambodia do they arrest people according to a list from a computer,” he said. “I remind authorities that the arrest from the list is not right—it is not evidence. I [wanted] the judge to reject the accusation [against Bun Mony]—no evidence, no witnesses.”
When he was allowed to speak at the end of the trial, Bun Mony asked to be acquitted.
“I would like the judge to stop accusing me because I did nothing.,” he said. “I did not hold a gun. I want to be released, to have freedom to return to my family.”
The court agreed that Bun Mony was innocent and he was released from prison. But again perhaps relying on bad evidence, Judge Sok Sethamony said that among the reasons for Bun Mony’s acquittal was his absence from the organizational chart.
Kim Sopheak said that after his own release from prison, he could not go home because authorities held on to his passport for two weeks. It was finally returned and by late September he was back in the US.
“I would love to go back to Cambodia someday, but right now I wouldn’t trust anything,” he said recently from his Minnesota home. “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
His friends in the Cambodian community in Minnesota are frightened by his story, and several canceled plans to visit Cambodia this year, fearing they may also share the name of someone listed on the CFF chart.
Kim Sopheak said one of his police captors, who he knew only as Sinarith, told him to forget everything when he was released.
“Sinarith said, “When you go back to the United States, don’t tell anyone that we were abusing you,’” Kim Sopheak said.