The key witness in the long-awaited trial of suspects accused of planning attacks in Phnom Penh on behalf of the regional militant group Jemaah Islamiyah testified on Tuesday that he overheard two suspects speaking in English about plans to bomb the British and US Embassies.
However, star witness and motorcycle taxi driver Than Lundy, 29, also told the court that he doesn’t speak English.
“They conversed with each other, and I listened to their conversation, which included a plan to bomb the [embassies],” Than Lundy told the court. “They spoke in English,” he said.
“Which words did they use?” defense lawyer Chiv Song Hak asked.
“I don’t know,” Than Lundy replied. “I cannot speak English.”
After 20 months in prison, Thai Muslims Abdul Azi Haji Chiming, 35, Muhammad Yalaludin Mading, 41, Egyptian national Esam Mohammed Khadr Ali, 40, and Cambodian Cham Sman Esma El, 24, appeared in court Tuesday.
The four men were arrested in separate raids in May and June 2003 on information linking them to key figures in the radical Islamic group Jemaah Islamiyah which has been implicated in the Bali bombing in 2002 and the JW Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta in 2003.
Five other terror suspects were also tried in absentia at Tuesday’s court hearing, including Riduan Isamuddin, better known as Hambali—the operations chief of Jemaah Islamiyah and a key link with al-Qaida—and a man known as Ibrahim.
Than Lundy said it was Hambali and Ibrahim he heard plotting the embassy attacks while driving them around Phnom Penh in search of a car for them to buy.
But lawyers representing the suspects in court Tuesday pounced on Than Lundy’s testimony.
“If you can’t speak English, how can you understand their conversation?” asked Chiv Song Hak, one of two lawyers representing the two Thais and the Egyptian. “You are a strange witness,” he added.
When the defense lawyers asked Than Lundy, who had not appeared in an earlier trial, where he lived, he said he was from Siem Reap province and had been brought to court by the police. Presiding Judge Ya Sakhon prevented the lawyers from following up on the subject.
When defense lawyer Kao Soupha reminded Than Lundy that if he didn’t tell the truth he could be punished under the law, Ya Sakhon interjected, warning Kao Soupha not to intimidate the witness.
Asked by Kao Soupha why he had not reported the bomb plot to police earlier, Than Lundy said: “I was worried police would not believe me.”
Than Lundy said he didn’t end up buying a car for Hambali and Ibrahim but was paid $100 for his time. Hambali was arrested in Thailand last year and is being held by the US at an undisclosed location. The court also heard from other witnesses, including Sop Yusoff, the director of a Kuwaiti-funded Phnom Penh school and orphanage where Sman Esma El was a teacher.
Sop Yusoff, 48, testified that neither his former employee nor the Dangkao district school were involved in any terrorist activities.
Questioned individually by Ya Sakhon and prosecutor Yet Chakriya, the four suspects also pleaded innocence.
Besides Than Lundy’s testimony, nine months of investigation since the case’s last aborted trial had revealed no new evidence, Chiv Song Hak said after the trial.
“If the judgment is legally done, my clients will be released,” he added.
The four suspects in court on Tuesday were initially charged under Article 2 of Cambodia’s Law on Punishment of the Acts of Terrorism, but mid-way through their first trial on Feb 27, Ya Sakhon and Yet Chakriya recharged the men under Article 3 of the law because the original charge, kidnapping, did not match their suspected bombing plot activities.
Bail applications for the four men were turned down numerous times during their 20-month detention period, which is more than three times the maximum six-month pretrial detention period stipulated in law.
Ya Sakhon is expected to deliver a verdict today.