Master of the Earth Wouldn’t Miss, Judge Finds

An ex-RCAF colonel, reputed in the 1990s to be a well-connected killer, remained in prison Mon­­day, despite a Kompong Cham Provincial Court judge’s decision Wednesday to reduce a charge of attempted man­slaughter and suspend his jail sentence.

Prosecutor Ouk Touch said Monday that he had challenged the verdict, keeping Sath Soeun, popularly known as Soeun Phen Dai, or Master of the Earth, jailed until the case can be heard in Phnom Penh Appeals Court.

Sath Soeun, 48, was arrested earlier this year in the Feb 8 roadside shooting of RCAF Lieutenant Colonel Thach Vannarith in Kompong Cham district’s Boeung Kok commune.

The shooting occurred when the two—heavily intoxicated by both their accounts—stopped to urinate on their way home from a wedding.

According to the defense, the victim and police, Thach Vanna­rith was shot three times with a

K-59 pistol in the back. Two other shots missed.

Judge Sim Kuch postponed his verdict at an April 6 trial, calling for further investigation because of “differences and irregularities” in statements given to police and the court.

Last week’s hearing, however, provided no reconciliation of inconsistencies in statements Sath Soeun gave to police and the court.

Instead, the defendant and the financially compensated victim won over the judge with the argument: Master of the Earth doesn’t miss.

“If I had tried to kill him, I would have shot him in the head,” Sath Soeun told the court.

Despite Sath Soeun’s previous confession to police in which he admitted intentionally shooting Thach Vannarith over a perceived insult, he told the court Wednesday that the pistol slipped from his belt, hit the ground and went off accidentally—five times.

At his April 6 trial, Sath Soeun told the court that the pistol slipped from his vest.

At both hearings, Sath Soeun said he panicked after the gun went off. He fled and dumped the weapon in the Mekong River.

Thach Vannarith did not appear in court Wednesday. But he did request leniency for Sath Soeun in a statement. His lawyer said he recieved $4,700 in compensation.

“If Sath Soeun wanted to kill me, I would be dead,” the statement said.

Sim Kuch, in his verdict, said the two parties’ accounts were “compatible.”

“It shows that the suspect had no intention to shoot the victim because they are friends,” he said.

He reduced the charged to “assault with injury,” issued a five-month sentence, already served, a one-year suspended sentence and ordered five additional years of probation for Sath Soeun.

Sim Kuch also said that military experts had performed tests on the K-59. The experts determined that “because it is an old gun, it fires easily,” the judge said.

He then ordered that the weapon be returned to RCAF for “daily use.”

Interviewed later by telephone, Sim Kuch said the gun in question was never recovered from the Mekong River, but, according to RCAF records, it was “really old.”

In explaining his appeal, Prosecutor Ouk Touch said Monday, “Sath Soeun admitted that he shot the victim, but then he changed his mind. I don’t accept this. The ruling was not right.”

At the April 6 trial, Thach Vannarith asked that charges against Sath Soeun be dropped, but told reporters during the recess that the shooter should be prosecuted according to the law.

He is not alone in his unwillingness to take on Sath Soeun. For much of the 1990s, Sath Soeun was more myth than man. He was said to be impervious to bullets.

Some alleged that his ties to the military and Kompong Cham provincial government were his best protection.

Despite a history of violence, Sath Soeun has walked away from numerous charges, serving relatively brief detentions at most.

In 1995, Kompong Cham police officials said they saw Sath Soeun execute of a boy he suspected of stealing. They later said they did not arrest Sath Soeun because they were afraid of him.

But some Kompong Cham locals still look fondly on their local legend, despite his 1998 downfall. He was dismissed from RCAF for dereliction of duty, then linked to timber and rubber smuggling.

Sitting on the bank of the Mekong one evening last week, a speedboat driver reflected on Sath Soeun.

“The regular people like him, because he is nice and friendly. But Soeun is not nice to those who interfere in his business. He will do whatever he wants,” the man said.

Sath Soeun declined to answer questions from reporters last week.

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