The evidence that spurred the arrest of three foreign nationals and one Cambodian Cham earlier this year over their alleged links to regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah is not strong enough to put the four on trial, an investigating judge said Tuesday.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge Oun Bunna said Tuesday that justification for anti-terrorist authorities to swoop down on the four suspects in separate raids in May and June was based primarily on police reports and not hard evidence.
The original terrorism charges leveled against the four should be dropped and replaced with the lesser charge of “intending” to carry out terrorist acts, the judge said.
But the lesser charge, too, still has to be proved, he added.
“We cannot use a police report as official documents” of evidence, Oun Bunna said by telephone. The police report “was a tip for further investigation. These reports would be kicked out by lawyers.”
If the court cannot gather more evidence by the time the six-month pre-trial detention period expires in December, there will be no case for the suspects to answer, he added.
Searches of the locations where the four worked and money transfers to the Islamic NGOs where they were employed did not uncover or amount to evidence of wrongdoing, Oun Bunna said.
“My last hope is to request the US Embassy to disclose evidence, because the government claimed the tip leading to the arrests came from the US Embassy,” he said.
Before prosecution is likely, “there are a lot of things that need to be done around this investigation,” Oun Bunna added.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Tuesday he was extremely unhappy with the judge’s position.
“Really, I am very disappointed,” Khieu Sopheak said.
“The suspects were arrested as the result of cooperation between our law enforcement and another country’s…. We spared no effort to arrest those people, but what can we do?” he said.
If the four are released, an appeal will be lodged to a higher court, Khieu Sopheak said.
In late May, police closed two Islamic schools and charged Thai Muslims Abdul Azi Haji Chiming, 35, Muhammad Yalaludin Mading, 41, and Egyptian Esam Mohammed Khidr Ali, 40, with terrorist acts linked to the Indonesia-based Jemaah Islamiyah group, which has been blamed for the Bali bombings.
On June 12, just days before the Asean Regional Forum was set to begin in Phnom Penh, Cambodian ethnic Cham Sman Esma El, 23, was arrested at a Kuwaiti-funded orphanage in Phnom Penh’s Dangkao district.
Sman Esma El had recently returned to Cambodia after having studied at Islamic religious schools in Thailand for three years. He was accused of having links to the three suspects already in police custody and was charged with international terrorism acts linked to Jemaah Islamiyah.
Cambodian officials have been extremely tight-lipped about the evidence that led to all four arrests but have confirmed the alleged militant Islamic cell was exposed by information provided by a US government security agency.
“The US does not comment on matters of intelligence,” US Embassy spokeswoman Heide Bronke said Tuesday.
Interior Ministry officials confirmed last month that US Central Intelligence Agency agents interrogated the four suspects in Phnom Penh.
“There is no evidence at all,” Kao Sopha, a lawyer representing the suspects, said Tuesday.
“The documents they have are only police reports,” Kao Sopha said. “The evidence is zero.”
An Interior Ministry official said Tuesday it was likely the arrests of the alleged Jemaah Islamiyah members—coming before the Asean Regional Forum and the arrival of US Secretary of State Colin Powell in June—were almost too opportune to be believable.
“They wanted to show Colin Powell that they can arrest and stop [Jemaah Islamiyah] in this country,” said the official, who requested anonymity.
During his visit, Powell lavished praise on Cambodia’s strong handling of “terrorists operating in the region,” and encouraged other Asean members to take similar “specific and concrete steps.”
Zachary Abuza, a US-based security analyst who has written extensively on al-Qaida, warned earlier this year that Jemaah Islamiyah networks in Southeast Asia were highly dangerous despite the arrest of some 120 suspects in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Interviewed by The Associated Press, Abuza said the most wanted Jemaah Islamiyah member, Riduan bin Isamuddin, who is also known as Hambali, may be hiding in western Cambodia.
Abuza said one of Hambali’s wives is a Cambodian Cham.