A Thai court Thursday ordered the repatriation of Sam Rainsy Party member Sok Yoeun, who has been the focus of a nearly three-year extradition bid by the Cambodian government, which has accused the opposition activist of trying to assassinate Prime Minister Hun Sen in a 1998 Siem Reap rocket attack.
“The court considered the evidence and found that his defense was groundless,” senior judge Phon Anuwatnitikarn of the Thai criminal court ruled Thursday, according to Agence France-Presse.
Opposition lawmaker Tioulong Saumura said the court did not consider Sok Yoeun’s case a political one, making him subject to extradition. But she questioned this thinking, asking why if Sok Yoeun wanted to kill Cambodia’s premier—something both she and others repeatedly denied—he would do so for personal reasons.
“I don’t think Hun Sen has stolen [Sok Yoeun’s] wife, or stolen the cow of Sok Yoeun. I don’t know how this can be personal—I’m flabbergasted,” Tioulong Saumura said.
Defense lawyers for Sok Yoeun say they will appeal the verdict immediately. They have 15 days to file their appeal, during which Sok Yoeun will remain in Thailand. The Thai appeals court has three months to hear the case, Tioulong Saumura said.
Sok Yoeun, dressed in prison fatigues and handcuffed, appeared somber as he was led from the court room to a detention center within the court, AFP reported.
When asked his opinion of the verdict, Sok Yoeun said: “I don’t know, but I will appeal.”
Opposition party members in Phnom Penh said Thursday they were suspicious of the verdict’s timing. The court’s decision came less than a week after Hun Sen visited Thailand for a meeting of regional leaders, and had conversations with senior Thai officials, Tioulong Saumura said.
She also claimed the verdict will interfere with efforts by the Sam Rainsy Party to coordinate for next year’s general election.
“It will take a lot of time and resources to deal with the problem—the timing is very convenient for [the government]. We cannot concentrate on campaigning when one of our own is facing extradition, torture and death,” she said.
Tioulong Saumura also said she feared Sok Yoeun could be forced to confess that opposition leader Sam Rainsy was somehow linked to the attack, “and then [the government] will start the process of trying to arrest Rainsy.”
Sam Rainsy Party officials have always maintained Sok Yoeun would be killed if he were handed over to Cambodian authorities, and continue to see his arrest as more an attempt to disrupt opposition activities in Cambodia rather than find those who were behind the rocket attack.
Hun Sen was unharmed in the incident, but one bystander was killed when one of four rockets aimed at a procession of newly elected parliamentarians fired.
Two other Sam Rainsy Party members were arrested in late 1999 in connection with the attack, but were released after six months in Phnom Penh’s military prison due to a lack of evidence. Both men and their families have been resettled by the UN in third countries.
Sok Yoeun also has UN refugee status, and his family has already been relocated in Finland.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said Thursday Sok Yoeun has not yet been convicted of any crimes, and the court merely wants to question him about the rocket attack.
“If the accusations by the military court are not enough, he will walk free,” Khieu Kanharith said. “Up to now he is not a criminal…because the Thai courts decided to send him back doesn’t mean he’s guilty.”
Khieu Kanharith dismissed the opposition’s claims that Sok Yoeun will be in danger if he is returned to Cambodia. “You can have doctors from anywhere testify that he is okay.”
Sok Yoeun fled Battambang province in late 1999 as the government closed in on rocket attack suspects. He was caught hiding in Thailand and arrested on immigration charges in December 1999. Since then the 57 year-old has been awaiting the outcome of Cambodia’s extradition attempts in jail, where his lawyers say his health has greatly deteriorated.
He was released once after serving a six-month sentence for entering Thailand illegally, but was also immediately re-arrested as the government here made its claims that Sok Yoeun had to stand trial for the rocket attack.
Critics say the government has failed to present any credible evidence that Sok Yoeun was connected—much less masterminded the attack. His lawyers have pointed out that the arrest warrant from the Cambodian courts have misidentified Sok Yoeun, and was issued nearly two weeks before the Sept 24, 1998, attack took place.
Defense lawyer Chairat Saeng-arun said he was disturbed that the court did not see political motivation as a factor in Phnom Penh’s request for Sok Yoeun’s extradition, AFP reported. “But I’m not surprised with the verdict. We will appeal, and we remain confident that an appeals court will overturn the verdict.”