The Kandal Provincial Court on Thursday sentenced four security guards and a farmer to seven years in prison each for stealing relics of the Buddha from a stupa atop Oudong Mountain in 2013—despite the farmer’s insistence that he carried out the robbery alone.
A sixth man, a moto-taxi driver, was acquitted and walked free Thursday, nearly two years after he and the security guards were jailed.
“Chorm Thai, Sieng Sarin, Pha Sokhem, Ka Sat and Keo Reaksmey are sentenced to seven years each for stealing relics of the Buddha from the stupa,” Presiding Judge Say Samphors Serey announced in court Thursday, adding that the men would also be fined 8 million riel, or about $2,000.
“If all of the defendants do not agree with this verdict, they have a month to appeal, starting from today,” he said.
The security guards—Mr. Thai, Mr. Sarin, Mr. Sat and Mr. Sokhem, the chief of security—were arrested in December 2013 over the theft earlier that month of a golden urn that contained the relics, said to be the hair, teeth and bones of the Buddha.
The guards have since maintained their innocence, and in February last year, police in Takeo province arrested Mr. Reaksmey, the farmer, who confessed to stealing the relics alone. After searching his home in Traing district, police found the relics, along with a number of gold Buddha statues he said he also stole from the mountain.
At their August 11 trial, the only evidence the prosecution produced against the security guards was the handprints and footprints of the men that police found on the floor, wall and door of the stupa. The men said they likely left their prints in the stupa while carrying out their guard duties.
During the trial, Mr. Reaksmey again stated that he stole the relics by himself, going on to give a detailed description of how he pulled off the robbery.
As prison guards escorted the five men from the courtroom Thursday, Mr. Sarin protested his innocence.
“I did not commit the crime,” he said “I am not satisfied. I was just careless with my work, but the court sentenced me like this.”
Both he and Mr. Sat said they would appeal the court’s decision.
“I did not know about the theft,” Mr. Sat said. “Why did the court sentence us so seriously?”
Mr. Reaksmey, the farmer, declined to comment.
Kann Sopheak, the acquitted moto-taxi driver, said he would not seek compensation.
“It was unjust that I was imprisoned for about two years,” he said. “But I just want to leave the prison.”
Outside the courtroom, family members of the security guards were in tears.
“It is very unjust that the court sentenced my husband seriously because he was not involved in this case,” said Kao Sokheng, Mr. Sat’s wife.
“My family is very poor, so since my husband was arrested, my six children have not gone to school because I don’t have money,” she added.
Contacted by telephone, Chheng Phat, a lawyer who represented all the security guards, said the judges had failed to weigh the evidence carefully.
“The court just suspected them, then it took those suspicions to sentence them,” he said.
Vantho Ryavan, Mr. Reaksmey’s lawyer, said his client would not appeal.
“My client confessed to the crime, so I think the sentence is suitable for him,” he said.