The Military Court sentenced opposition parliamentarian Cheam Channy to seven years in prison Tuesday after finding him guilty of fraud and forming an illegal armed force. The ruling followed a Monday trial where a handful of witnesses for the prosecution accused Cheam Channy of using them to recruit thousands of troops to overthrow the government. He was also found guilty of tricking people into buying positions in the so-called illegal army.
Cheam Channy’s defense team was neither allowed to cross-examine the prosecution’s witnesses nor produce its own witnesses.
Announcing the verdict, the Military Court’s presiding Judge, Ney Thol, told the courthouse audience of rights workers, soldiers, senior foreign diplomats and journalists that Cheam Channy’s activities “had seriously affected national defense, national security and damaged the military’s interests.”
Accusing Cheam Channy of trying to “hide his bad act from national and international communities,” Ney Thol described the so-called illegal armed force as “a secret creation of undercover soldiers inside the army units to discover the army’s secrets [and] destroy the government’s existing troops.”
Khom Piseth, an opposition party supporter, was convicted in absentia on the same charges and sentenced to five years in prison.
After sentencing, Cheam Channy was escorted out of the courtroom while his wife, Chum Sieng Leng, wept and appealed for help from Prime Minister Hun Sen, Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and retired King Norodom Sihanouk.
“Please find justice for my husband. He is innocent,” Chum Sieng Leng said. “The trial was based on a few sheets of paper. Anyone could organize it.”
The US Embassy condemned the trial. “The conduct of the trial raises again questions about the competence and independence of Cambodia’s judiciary, and constitutes further intimidation of opposition voices,” the Embassy said in a statement.
“We urge appropriate review of this case so that justice may be served.”
Outside the courtroom, military prosecutor Prum Sorn Thon said the opposition Assembly member was lucky.
“For me, [Cheam Channy’s] guilt is very serious,” he said, adding that the seven year sentence seemed “trivial” to him.
“Cambodia has the Cambodian law,” he added.
New York-based Human Rights Watch also slammed the verdict.
“The trial was a complete sham,” Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch Asia director, said in a statement. “Once again Cambodia’s politicized judiciary has been used as a tool to silence the opposition.”
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights appealed to the international community to intervene and the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of 18 local rights NGOs, said there was “no credible evidence” included in the proceedings against Cheam Channy.
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights said the hearing was “marked by several breaches of national and international standards of fair trial.”
“The trial judge interrupted the defense lawyers’ questioning of Cheam Channy for no apparent reason. He stopped the defense lawyers’ questioning of a key witness for the prosecution. He did not permit the defense to cross-examine any witnesses,” it said in a statement.
Officials from the British and Australian embassies attended the proceedings though both embassies declined comment.
One foreign diplomat said the trial is a bad omen for the long-awaited Khmer Rouge tribunal.
“The trial didn’t meet any acceptable standards,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity. “We hope this is not a bad omen for the Khmer Rouge tribunal, and we’ll point that out to the government.”
A second diplomat said the verdict would likely help extend the absence of opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
“With such incentives, Rainsy would not want to come back,” he said.
In a statement from Paris on Monday, Sam Rainsy denied the charges against Cheam Channy and said the ruling was a political ploy aimed at intimidating opposition supporters ahead of the next general election.
“Why would we be irresponsible, inconsistent and stupid enough to consider Ôforming an illegal army?'” Sam Rainsy said in a statement.
“It is rather in the ruling CPP’s interest to make politically motivated charges against the SRP so as to have a pretext to crack down through a corrupt and politicized court on its challenger at the next general elections scheduled for 2008.”
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith did not answer repeated calls Tuesday. Kassie Neou, Funcinpec secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, declined comment.
Mu Sochua, former Minister of Women’s Affairs and now an opposition party member, blasted the verdict.
“It gives a very chilling message to the Cambodian people. We can no longer count on justice through the judiciary,” she said.
The verdict puts into question the money donors are giving the government for judicial and civil administration reform, Mu Sochua added.
Without a firm message from the donors that manipulation of justice by the courts is unacceptable, aid intended for judicial reform will not benefit the Cambodian people, she said.
“It’s just money spent on strengthening the power of the ruling party,” she added.
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay called the verdict “disgusting.”
“Everyone who heard the trial [Monday] will know Cheam Channy is innocent,” Son Chhay said. “What I and the colleagues in the party have to do is to try and get Cheam Channy out as quickly as possible.
“We have to look at all possibilities….The new King hasn’t pardoned anyone yet. It would be good for him to start doing something.”
Son Chhay accused Mol Roeup, director of Military Intelligence at the Ministry of Defense, of framing Cheam Channy.
Such an allegation “gives too much value to my unit and myself,” Mol Roeup said by telephone.
“I cannot organize this case alone,” he said, adding that whether more opposition officials will be arrested was up to the court.