sihanoukville – Charges were dismissed Wednesday afternoon against two human rights workers and eight others, ending a dramatic day in court here.
After dismissing the charges, Judge Tak Kimsia ruled that the municipality of Sihanoukville is responsible for paying some $294,168 in damages to Khim Bo, former deputy governor of this seaside town, and $150,000 to Kamsab Hotel, which was damaged during December unrest.
“I just follow the law,” trial judge Tak Kimsia said after the verdict. “When the prosecutor recommended that all the charges be dropped, what else could I do?”
The trial brought to an end a seven-month ordeal for two Licadho employees, who became the first human rights activists to be charged by the government with breaking the law while conducting rights work.
In his closing argument, prosecutor Chhum Ngon conceded that the court did not have enough evidence to charge the rights workers, Kim Sen and Meas Minear, and market vendor Khieu Piseth with inciting violence and organizing an illegal demonstration, or the seven other defendants with robbery and damaging property during the December demonstrations.
The two human rights workers have maintained since being arrested in December that they were simply monitoring the demonstrations, which erupted in Sihanoukville after it was discovered that 3,000 tons of mercury-laden waste had been dumped there.
“I am very, very happy they dropped the charges against me,” Kim Sen said Wednesday afternoon. “I never thought I would be found guilty because I have done nothing wrong.”
Meas Minear echoed his co-worker’s sentiment: “I’m not surprised, because I did not commit any offense.”
The verdict came after a morning filled with witness testimony and several arguments between defense lawyers and prosecutor Chhun Ngon and Tak Kimsia.
The defense team argued several points of law, including whether written statements from witnesses who failed to appear in court were admissible as evidence in the case.
“It is necessary for the witness to testify so both [defense lawyers and the prosecutor] can ask questions,” Lean Chenda, Meas Minear’s attorney, said during the heated 20-minute argument that delayed the court’s 11 am lunch break.
In his customary manner of raising his voice, Chhun Ngon retorted that the judge would decide whether or not to consider written statements from witnesses who did not testify before the court.
The issue was not resolved before the court recess and many of the more than 50 observers were concerned that the defendants would be convicted based on uncontested statements.
“Witnesses should come to testify in the trial to allow the lawyers to cross-examine them,” Licadho President Kek Galabru said. “If there is no cross examination, it is not a fair trial….I’m worried that the judge is going to use the [written] statements to charge my staff.”
When court resumed at 2 pm, the judge sustained the defense team’s objections to the written statements and asked for closing arguments.
Ka Savuth, Khim Bo’s attorney, went first, loudly announcing his disappointment that witnesses did not appear in court. “I feel regretful that the Sihanoukville authorities—including military police and police—submitted [documents] with their signatures saying that Meas Minear and Kim Sen led the demonstration and incited the demonstrators…but on the trial day, they do not show up….”
or they [testify in court] and say Meas Minear and Kim Sen did not commit a crime,” he said.
“If you cannot find anyone guilty, the local authorities must be responsible for repair and replacement [of Khim Bo’s property],” he said, asking for $444,168 in damages to cover the former deputy governor’s Land Rover, which was destroyed in rioting; damaged and stolen property in his home; and some $150,000 in CPP campaign funds he said were also stolen during the demonstration.
When the defense was instructed to present its argument next, the process was again stalled. “How can I make my conclusion when the prosecutor hasn’t charged my client,” Kim Sen’s attorney, Chea Nara, said.
After a 10-minute discussion, Tak Kimsia requested that Chhun Ngon present his argument first.
“After hearing testimony of all 22 witnesses….I conclude that we do not have enough evidence to charge Kim Sen, Meas Minear and Khieu Piseth with leading an illegal demonstration. Regarding the charges related to the robbery, there is not enough evidence to charge [the other seven defendants],” the judge said.
Each of the six defense lawyers agreed, urging the judge to set all 10 defendants free. Two of the 10 were not present in court Wednesday or during the first two days of the trial July 8-9.
After retiring to chambers for about an hour, Tak Kimsia returned the courtroom and formally dismissed all charges against the 10 defendants, citing lack of evidence. While he awarded Khim Bo compensation for his personal property, the judge deducted the claim of $150,000 in CPP funds.
After the trial, he said there was no documentation to show the money was in Khim Bo’s house at the time of the demonstrations.
Outside the courtroom, defendants, lawyers and observers hugged, snapped photographs and commended the court.
“I think this trial is absolutely fair and brings justice for myself as well as others,” Kim Sen said. Meas Minear added, “It seems that the trial today was fair…and we hope that fairness will prevail in other trials [in the future].”
Khieu Piseth’s attorney, Ouk Vandeth, said: “When the charges were dropped, we were very happy [because] it meant that the judge in Sihanoukville provided justice to our defendants.”