Phnom Penh Municipal Court opened the fourth Cambodian Freedom Fighters trial Monday, accusing the 20 alleged rebels of orchestrating three bombings in the capital as well as the failed Nov 24, 2000, coup attempt that left at least four people dead.
Municipal Court Judge Sek Sethamony charged the 20 suspects—several of whom are accused of being high-ranking CFF members close to self-confessed CFF leader Chhun Yasith —with terrorism and membership in an armed group at the start of Monday’s trial, which is expected to last 10 days.
The court, however, did not provide or introduce any evidence linking the 20 suspects to the three bombings in question: An April bombing at the Vietnamese Embassy that injured a bodyguard, the July blast outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation and the August bombing at Funcinpec headquarters that wounded two men.
Also, the court did not display large amounts of physical evidence, as it had done in previous CFF trials. Only one table with several mobile phones, a stack of documents and several CFF flags were displayed in the courtroom Monday. In previous mass trials, authorities had stacked piles of alleged contraband, included AK-47 assault rifles and rocket launchers.
To date, Phnom Penh courts have convicted a total of 56 people in two previous CFF trials, handing out sentences ranging from a few years to life in prison.
The defendants on trial Monday—including three suspects arrested by Thai authorities in Thailand, an alleged Cambodian-American and the wife of convicted CFF member An Mao—were arrested by authorities in sweeps over a two-month period between September and October last year.
Only suspected CFF member, Nein Khim, 59, testified during Monday’s proceedings. Accused of being the commander of the CFF in Thailand, Nein Khim repeatedly denied being a key player in the rebel group.
According to the court, Thai police arrested Nein Khim Oct 11 and held him for 10 days before transferring him to Cambodian officials at the Thai-Cambodian border. Although Nein Khim denied involvement in the Nov 24, 2000, raid in Phnom Penh as well as the three other bombings, he conceded being the “second bureau chief” for the CFF’s operations in Thailand.
Nein Khim said in open court he only joined the CFF because a high-ranking CFF member told him the UN would provide him with amnesty and repatriate him to another country if he claimed to be a CFF member.
Nein Khim admitted, however, that his relationship with several convicted CFF members went as far back as three years. In 1999, he said, he was approached by Cambodian-American Richard Kiri Kim, who was convicted in July for his part in the Nov 24, 2000, raid in Phnom Penh and is now serving a life sentence.
Kiri Kim asked Nein Khim to develop Prey Veng province for an NGO that Kiri Kim started, Nein Khim said. He worked for the NGO for three years, but fled to Thailand on Nov 27, 2000, after his wife told him Cambodian authorities were searching for him in connection with the failed coup attempt.
Nein Khim disputed Sek Sethamony’s accusations the CFF paraphernalia found in a Bangkok apartment where he was arrested belonged to him. He also denied any connection to the 15 CFF-related documents the court introduced into evidence Monday. Included in the documents were letters of recruitment by the CFF.
Although Nein Khim was the only suspect to testify Monday, the 19 other suspects stood before the court and received their charges. Included in the group was Sok Nhon, the wife of An Mao, who was convicted in July of terrorism and membership in an armed group and is serving a life sentence.
Sao Gilbert, a Cambodian-American arrested in September at Pochentong Airport when he was disembarking from a plane, also stood before the court on Monday. Sao Gilbert is accused of being the CFF deputy minister of information. He did not testify.
Chhun Yasith—a resident of Long Beach in the US state of California who was tried in absentia in July and sentenced to life—wrote in an e-mail dated Thursday that “some” of the 20 suspects on trial are CFF members, but did not provide details on which members he is familiar with.
He wrote that many of the 64 CFF suspects arrested in September 2001 and October 2001 were planning a second coup attempt, but “our second coup has been failed again because of those Cambodian-Americans who were sent over to do a mission did not know how to manage and organize those commanders.
“Some of our men were arrested, but not all. There are hundred[s] and hundred[s] of freedom fighter commanders [CFF members],” wrote Chhun Yasith, who was accused by one Western diplomat as being “delusional.”
“Those freedom fighters in Cambodia will perform another coup soon,” Chhun Yasith wrote.