The Phnom Penh Municipal Court dropped charges of terrorism on Wednesday against men accused of belonging to the outlawed Cambodian Freedom Fighters—an anti-communist group dedicated to the overthrow of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.
Presiding Judge Tan Senarong asked his intern from the Royal School of Judges and Prosecutors to deliver the verdict for five accused rebels present in court Wednesday.
“The charges against them all are lifted,” the intern declared, and the court provided no further explanation. Tan Senarong repeatedly declined to give reason for his judgment later in the day.
The verdict also cleared four other men tried in absentia on the same charge of terrorism.
Prosecutor Khut Sopheang said later that he would consider appealing the ruling within the allowed 24-hour period, but did not sound certain.
“We charged them as an illegal armed force, but we never found any weapons,” he said.
Since the CFF claimed responsibility for a November 2000 attack on Phnom Penh, authorities have arrested scores of alleged rebels.
Human rights workers and other observers have criticized the government’s round-ups, at least in some cases, as witch hunts intended to sow fear and cow political opponents.
Sou Kim, 50, the alleged leader of the cell awaiting its verdict Wednesday, said he was the victim of such intrigue. He stood as Funcinpec’s No 2 candidate for Pailin in last year’s elections.
“My arrest involved politics because at that time Funcinpec had not joined the government,” he said before entering the court.
Sou Kim was arrested in February. Authorities said at the time that confessions by the four other accused rebels—Penh Bora, 23, Van Vuthy, 42, Chea Chanthorn, 47, and Tuy Bol, 48—led to his arrest.
Sok Phal, chief of the Interior Ministry’s Central Security Department, then said that Sou Kim intended to attack a military installment in Koh Kong province.
But at their trial last month, the four men whom police said led them to Sou Kim told the court they had done so under extreme duress. Their testimony was elicited by torture, including the application of electric shocks, they told the court.
As the five waited for the rain to ease Wednesday before returning to Prey Sar prison, they said they were elated with the court’s decision.
Sou Kim said he would return to Pailin and continue to work for Funcinpec.