Judging from Friday’s proceedings, Phnom Penh Municipal Court may prove to be one of the murkiest battlefields in the international war on terror.
Translators stuttered, sound systems failed and a shaky judicial system broke down into a circus-like performance, attendants said, and little definite knowledge emerged from the short hearing for five men accused of having links to regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah.
The court proceedings became so outrageous that Kao Soupha, representing three of the men, walked out.
“I don’t know the real story clearly on Friday’s trial,” the lawyer said Sunday. “I walked out because the court was very complicated to understand.”
His departure was preceded by Judge Ya Sakhon’s refusal to read out the article under which the men are charged. It was later explained that the court had changed the men’s charge, from Article 2 of the State of Cambodia terrorism law to Article 3.
The difference is significant. The second article allows for a maximum 20-year sentence. The third requires a life sentence.
An unofficial translation of Article 2 reads: “Any person who kidnapped or detained illegally the persons aiming at creating a subversion, extorting for money, revenge, taking as hostage or for selling, and any person who committed any other act of terrorism, shall be subjected to punishment to imprisonment from 10 to 20 years.”
Article 3 reads: “Anyone who attempts to kill or kills people with the prepared intention in the purpose of conducting terrorism shall be punished to life imprisonment regardless of any tolerance of any circumstances.”
Neither Ya Sakhorn nor Yet Chakriya explained why the charge was changed. Neither could be reached for comment Sunday.
Parliamentarian Ahmed Yahya, a prominent member of the Cham Muslim community who attended the proceedings, criticized the trial as a sham to curry favor with the US.
“This is political…. The judge refused to answer [about the charge]. It means the judge is not confident. They put these men in jail for nine months for nothing,” he said Sunday.
The government “wants to show it is strong against terrorism. And then [US Secretary of State] Colin Powell will come, and the foreign minister of Australia will come,” Ahmad Yahya said.
Part of the problem could be in the law itself, said one legal expert. The terrorism law was written up in 1992 as Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government fought rebels in its own country.
“Other lawyers and I have told parliamentarians and senators that they must reform the law, because it doesn’t apply to Cambodia currently,” said Ouk Vandeth, the legal vice-director at Legal Aid of Cambodia. “It especially does not apply to the international standard.”
One of the few clear points was that the four suspects in custody will remain there. A court clerk said Sunday that the case has been passed back to an investigating judge and will require a few more months before a second hearing.
They have already been detained three months past the six-month pre-trial detention limit set out in the law.
Three of the men—Thai muslims Muhammad Yalaludin Mading, 41, Abdul Azi Haji Chiming, 35, and Egyptian Esam Mohammed Khidr Ali, 40—were arrested in May and the fourth, Cambodian Cham Sman Ismael, in June. A fifth man, Rousha Yasser, 33, was on trial Friday in absentia, and is believed to have returned to his native Egypt.
It also emerged that the municipal court could call top Asian terror suspect Hambali to face similar charges. Hambali was arrested in October and is now in US custody at an undisclosed location. Two other suspects were newly charged Friday.
Other new information included a US Federal Bureau of Investigations agent’s testimony that Jemaah Islamiyah planned attacks on the US and British Embassies here. It is unclear whether the men charged were involved in the alleged planning of such an attack.