Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday sentenced Prince Norodom Ranariddh in absentia to 18 months in prison and ordered him to pay $150,000 in compensation to Funcinpec after finding him guilty of breach of trust.
Prince Ranariddh will serve an additional, unspecified amount of jail time if he fails to pay the compensation to Funcinpec for violating Article 46 of the Untac law on breach of trust, over the sale of the party’s headquarters in 2005, Presiding Judge Sao Meach said.
Norodom Ranariddh Party officials and the prince’s lawyers walked out in protest as the judge read his verdict. The trial drew immediate criticism from SRP leader Sam Rainsy, Prince Sisowath Thomico and the US Embassy.
Sao Meach ruled that, while Prince Ranariddh was Funcinpec president, he had sold the party headquarters next to the French Embassy, then used the money to purchase a new plot of land in Dangkao district which he registered in his own name. That land must now be handed over to Funcinpec, Sao Meach said.
“The prince has taken the land and registered himself as owner of the property,” he said.
In a statement read out by a court clerk during the hearing, Prince Ranariddh protested his innocence.
“I never received any…money [from the sale],” Prince Ranariddh said in the statement. “I am a historical president, I have the right to decide on big issues.”
Sok Kalyan, the court’s deputy prosecutor, and Sao Meach encouraged witnesses and lawyers to keep their comments brief during the trial, which began just before 9 am.
“All you have to do is just say yes or no,” Sao Meach instructed one defense witness, who had been asked by Sok Kalyan to describe his knowledge of the sale of the headquarters.
On several occasions during the hearing, the courtroom audience broke out in snickers.
Sok Kalyan reprimanded Funcinpec Secretary-General Nhiek Bun Chhay’s lawyer Kuy Veasna for cross-examining defense witnesses. “I already asked that question. Why do you have to ask again? It’s a waste of time,” he said.
Chhim Seak Leng, secretary-general of the Norodom Ranariddh Party and one of six witnesses who testified in Prince Ranariddh’s defense, said a Funcinpec committee overseeing the purchase of the new headquarters had wanted the property to be registered in Prince Ranariddh’s name.
“Prince Norodom Ranariddh was a historical president. The committee named Prince Norodom Ranariddh on the property, the prince didn’t request [this],” Chhim Seak Leng said.
Prince Ranariddh’s lawyers Liv Sovanna and Moung Akrun argued aggressively on their client’s behalf, repeatedly holding up documents that they said proved his innocence and rebutting claims by Sok Kalyan and Kuy Veasna.
Moung Akrun said that it was not against the law for land for the new headquarters to be registered in Prince Ranariddh’s name.
“The court has no justice,” Moung Akrun shouted during his closing arguments.
“If the court had justice, the court should have…dropped the case,” he added.
Sao Meach deliberated in his office for about 10 minutes shortly after 2 pm, before returning with a written verdict pronouncing Prince Ranariddh’s guilt.
Before Sao Meach had finished speaking, NRP spokesman Muth Channtha shouted “injustice” and walked out.
Noranarith Anandayath, Prince Ranariddh’s special adviser, alleged outside the court that the verdict was decided in advance of the trial, adding that he doubts the prince will return to Cambodia any time soon.
If the NRP is not granted permission to hold a rally to protest the verdict, it will appeal to international donors to stop funding development projects at the courts, he added.
US Embassy spokesman Jeff Daigle wrote in an e-mail that the embassy has serious concerns about the legitimacy of the trial.
“The innocence or guilt of the accused…seems less important at this point than the perfunctory nature of the trial, which raises serious questions about its legitimacy,” he wrote.
The embassy is troubled by the timing of the trial, he added. “We note with concern that the timing of the proceedings coincides with the lead up to the elections on April 1, and the sentencing would preclude the Prince from participating in politics until after the national elections in 2008,” he wrote.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, head of the Sangkum Jatiniyum Front Party, said the case against Prince Ranariddh was baseless.
“The CPP as well as Funcinpec have engineered the whole case,” he alleged.
“The whole case is completely groundless.”
He also described the courts as “a weapon [used] by the ruling party to oppress” members of other parties.
SRP leader Sam Rainsy also said the verdict was unfair.
“I don’t support [Prince] Ranariddh, but I continue to believe that the courts in Cambodia are unfair,” he said, adding that many criminals who have committed far more egregious crimes have not been prosecuted.
In December 2005, Sam Rainsy was sentenced to 18 months in prison in absentia for defaming Prince Ranariddh and Prime Minister Hun Sen. He was later pardoned and never spent time in jail.
Om Yentieng, adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, said the government has not pressured the court to issue its verdict, as some have claimed.
“If the Norodom Ranariddh Party and NGOs have evidence that Samdech Hun Sen is interfering with the court, they can show me and we can exchange responses on a television show,” he said.
Funcinpec spokesman Nouv Sovathero declined to comment.
“The leadership [of Funcinpec] is quiet so I have nothing to say,” he said.