The Kompong Chhnang Provincial Court on Tuesday sentenced six men—five in absentia—to 13 years in prison for the January murder of a journalist in the province, according to the judge.
Yang Phealeng, 36, who was arrested on October 14, was the only one of the accused to appear in court. The other five—Saing Seng Ieng, 24; Rum Ra, 21, and brothers Khim Nun, 23; Khim Nak, 20, and Khim Nith, 19—remain at large.
“We sentenced them to 13 years in prison and fined them 5 million riel [about $1,250], to be paid to the wife of the victim, Suon Chan,” said presiding Judge Sann Sophat.
The men were also each ordered to pay $1,500 in compensation to three men who were beaten when they came to the aid of Suon Chan, according to Pen Ratha, a human rights monitor for Licadho who was present at the court Tuesday.
Suon Chan, a 44-year-old reporter for infrequently published Meakea Kampuchea newspaper, was murdered on the evening of January 21 by a group of six men, who beat him with bamboo poles as he was walking to buy cigarettes at a shop near his home in Cholkiri district’s Peam Chhkork commune.
In the wake of his death, the journalist’s work taking photos and shooting video of people using illegal fishing techniques was given as a possible motive for the murder.
In October, a consortium of seven local journalists—including reporters for Apsara TV and Kampuchea Thmey newspaper—presented a report to Kompong Chhnang governor Chhour Chandoeun alleging that Mr. Phealeng was a scapegoat, or what they called a “plastic killer.”
The report names Mr. Seng Ieng, who was among those sentenced in absentia, as the killer, and implicates him in illegal fishing. It goes on to say that his parents are friends of the commune police chief, Kong Sothy, and district police chief, Him Yong, who the journalists said were covering for the true killers.
The police chiefs, the journalists wrote, “colluded with the hit man’s parents in illegal fishing [using electric tools] and the illegal transport of fish.”
“Commune police chief Kong Sothy created a plastic killer and arrested Phealeng instead of the four hit men,” the report says.
The report names four of the five men charged in absentia Tuesday—all but the youngest Khim brother—as accomplices.
Sok Sovann, president of the Press Council of Cambodia, of which Suos Chan was a member, said he was in court Tuesday and that no lawyers were present to speak on behalf of the accused.
The law requires a lawyer to be present in felony cases.
Mr. Sovann said that following sentencing Tuesday, he asked Judge Sophat why the verdict had been delivered despite the absence of legal representation for the accused.
“Mr. Sophat said he sentenced them in accordance with his superior’s orders,” he said.
Judge Sophat declined to comment.