The strange trial of Nhim Sophea, nephew of Prime Minister Hun Sen, produced a guilty verdict on Thursday morning, behind the locked and guarded doors of Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
The two-hour proceedings consisted largely of Nhim Sophea and three friends telling the court their version of what happened on Oct 27—the night their party drove into a parked coconut truck and one of them shot at bystanders, killing three and injuring four.
No one testified on behalf of the victims.
Reporters crowded by a window in back of the building to listen.
Judge Tan Senarong sentenced Nhim Sophea, 22, to three years imprisonment for involuntary manslaughter.
Nhim Sophea is to serve a year and a half of that sentence before being released and beginning a five-year probation period, Tan Senarong said.
The judge ruled that a 22-year-old man named Sam Doeun, of whom little is known, was guilty of intentional manslaughter and traffic violations. He sentenced Sam Doeun to 10 years in prison and said the shooter was still at large.
The name of Sam Doeun was first mentioned publicly on Jan 14, at one of the trial’s three false starts.
It was then that Tan Senarong named him the trigger man and announced that Nhim Sophea was being tried for the considerably lesser charge of involuntary manslaughter.
The court originally charged Nhim Sophea with intentional manslaughter.
Not all of Thursday’s testimony was audible through the back window, but the premier’s nephew was the first to take the stand.
He told the court how he shouted at his AK-47-wielding companion, “Doeun, don’t shoot!” and tried to wrest the gun away.
Then a friend of the defendant’s gave a similar account, but added that the bystanders who witnessed the collision were no innocents. They were a menacing mob who brandished knives, axes and sticks, he said.
“We would have been beaten up if Sam Doeun didn’t fire first,” the friend said.
The next friend spoke too softly for much to be heard.
Nhim Sophea’s third friend told how the young men were speeding down Sihanouk Boulevard from the party at the home of a high-ranking official, when the lead car rammed the truck.
He told how the bystanders and their weapons frightened the stunned revelers. Then he testified about a Toyota Camry pulling up to the scene and a man getting out and firing a gun into the air.
Only then did Sam Doeun pull his trigger, the third friend said.
Dy Borima, lawyer for the defense, then argued that, in trying to prevent bloodshed, his client may have inadvertently caused the gun to go off.
“At that time, the rifle was out of control. That is the main point in the case,” he said.
Dy Borima asked Tan Senarong to find justice for Nhim Sophea so that Nhim Sophea might “have the chance to study in order to develop our country” and “share his knowledge with the next generation.”
Afterward, Dy Borima declined to comment on the verdict. He said he was not sure if his client would appeal the ruling.
Thursday’s testimony conflicted with stories previously given by investigating police and witnesses.
The day after the shooting, 24-year-old Ou Narith, whose cousin was killed by the crash, recalled one of the young men threatening the bystanders—“Go away! Go away! I will kill you all!”—before retrieving the AK-47 from his vehicle and opening fire.
“If the police had arrived at that time, the police would have been killed too,” Ou Narith said.
On Nov 3, another witness, Chev Chamroeun, described his reaction to seeing the shooter and his weapon.
“I couldn’t believe he’d shoot at the people. I thought he’d shoot at the sky. But after people saw the gun, they ran, and he shot them from behind.”
No one mentioned a second man with a gun. No one mentioned a struggle for a gun. Police never mentioned a suspect named Sam Doeun.
Penal Police Chief Reach Sokhon, who was in charge of the investigation, voiced skepticism of the court’s ruling .
“It is the court’s responsibility [to decide] whether to convict Nhim Sophea. But the story that Nhim Sophea was not involved was created,” he said.
“I arrested Nhim Sophea by a court-issued warrant, and all documents and evidence that I collected show that Nhim Sophea was the one who shot at onlookers.”
Reach Sokhon said Nhim Sophea should be sentenced to “at least 10 years in jail.”
He declined to comment on convicted killer Sam Doeun, saying he had not heard Tan Senarong’s verdict.
As for the courtroom’s locked doors, Article 128 of the 1993 Untac Law on Criminal Procedure reads, “The investigation during the hearing shall be in public, if not, it will be considered as null and void. The proceedings in open court are required not only for the pronouncement of the judgment, but also for the investigation, and the hearing. Therefore, the judgment shall mention the proceedings in open court, because without it, the judgment shall be considered as null.”
Article 129 makes allowances for discretion if there is a threat to public order but says that verdicts must be delivered publicly.
Chapter 1, Article 4, of Cambodia’s press law also grants reporters access to judicial proceedings, unless there is a court order saying otherwise.
Asked why his courtroom was closed Thursday morning, Tan Senarong said it wasn’t.
But the front door was locked from the inside. A reporter who tried to gain entry through the back door was barred and cursed by a guard.
On Thursday evening, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a group of 17 NGOs, issued a statement condemning the trial’s secrecy.
It appealed to the court for “transparency, respect for the law and the right of access to information, in order to create confidence in the Cambodian court.”