Twenty-four hours after he was cleared of all wrongdoing in a case that saw three fellow Muslims sentenced to life in prison on terrorism charges, an Egyptian national was finally released from PJ Prison, his lawyer reported.
After spending 20 months in jail, Esam Mohammed Khadr Ali, 40, walked out of the prison at 4 pm on Thursday, lawyer Kao Soupha said. He will spend the night in Phnom Penh as he tries to figure out what to do next.
“He is so happy,” Kao Soupha said. “He has not decided what to do next yet. He needs to consult with his lawyers and friends.”
Kao Soupha said the Egyptian’s passport was not returned to him yet, which could cause problems if he decided to go home to see his wife and family.
“The court said they did not know where it has gone,” Kao Soupha said. “I will search for it.”
Presiding Judge Ya Sakhon delivered his verdict Wednesday at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, and though cleared of all charges, the Egyptian was taken back to PJ Prison to complete paperwork.
Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana said it was unusual for a person who has been found innocent of a crime to go back to prison, but added he didn’t know the circumstances of Esam Mohammed Khadr Ali’s detention.
“Usually you should be free after the verdict,” he said. “It usually doesn’t take one day.”
Kao Soupha said Thai Muslims Abdul Azi Haji Chiming, Muhammad Yalaludin Mading and Cambodian Cham Sman Esma El were still considering whether to file appeals after they were sentenced to life.
Three other men were also convicted in absentia.
Pech Soline, one of the directors of the Om-Alqura Institute in Kandal province, where Esam Mohammed Khadr Ali worked, was happy to hear of the Egyptian’s release but was concerned that the other three men remained behind bars.
“It is a good judgment but it is not enough while other innocent people are still in prison,” he said. “The court should investigate more seriously. If it does, it would find out they are not guilty.”
Pech Soline said many Muslims in his community were unhappy with the verdict and the way the trial, which he described as a “show,” was conducted.
“They believed the trial lacked any evidence,” he said.
Several Cambodian Chams praying at the Dubai Mosque near Boeng Kak lake in Phnom Penh on Thursday said they felt the same way and believed the government was simply trying to look good for the US and Britain.
“It is agreed amongst the Muslim community that [the trial] was to appease the American government,” said Tollep Ismael, 24. “The Muslim community in Cambodia is not satisfied with the charges and verdict.”
Keo Bunroeun, 35, agreed, saying the case had tarnished the names of Muslims in Cambodia.
Following the verdict Wednesday, spokesmen for both the US and British embassies welcomed the verdict and thanked the Cambodian government for its continued support in the fight against terrorism.
A spokesperson for the UN’s Office of the High Commission for Human Rights said the office was concerned by the conduct of the trial but would await the written verdict before further comment.
“The office is concerned about certain irregularities in the trial but is waiting for the written verdict before making any further statements,” the spokesperson said.
Cambodia’s normally outspoken human rights organizations were unusually silent about the conduct of the trial and verdict on Thursday.
“My organization hasn’t been following this case,” said Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Kem Sokha, whose organization is funded by the US government.
Licadho President Kek Galabru said her organization, which receives funding from the British and US governments, was busy with other issues and did not have enough people to cover the trial.
“I don’t know what to say. With this case we don’t have any information,” she said, adding the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, an umbrella group of some 18 rights organizations, also did not send anyone to the trial.
“I don’t know why,” she said. “They normally want to monitor the trials. Maybe they didn’t know. It’s so strange, this case.”
Adhoc President Thun Saray said he also didn’t have enough information to comment on the case since his organization was not involved.
“We cannot make any judgments on what is fair or not fair,” he said.
“We need to have all the evidence. We have to be careful before we make judgment on a political case like that.”
Thun Saray denied that his organization had avoided the trial because the US and British governments provide some funding for his organization.
“We don’t care if we do something against the US,” he said.
Lao Mong Hay of the Center for Social Development, said the four men had several rights violated, including the length of their detention, which he said was a breach of the law, and what many have considered a lack of evidence.
“In terms of procedure, there were a number of breaches,” he said, adding that many also question whether the evidence against the three convicted was adequate.
“I think there’s still reasonable doubt,” he said.