The trial of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s nephew Nhim Sophea, 22, opened briefly on Wednesday and then was adjourned for further investigation of the events related to the Oct 27 crash and shooting that left three dead and several injured.
Wednesday’s hearing was the third false start in the case of Nhim Sophea, who was arrested in mid-November following his involvement in the much-publicized incident.
Presiding Judge Tan Senarong said Nhim Sophea is charged with involuntary manslaughter. It was reported earlier that he was charged with pre-meditated killing.
According to police reports and eyewitness accounts, Nhim Sophea and several friends were traveling in a four-vehicle convoy on the night of Oct 27 after leaving a birthday celebration at the home of a high-ranking official in Chamkar Mon district.
One of the four vehicles plowed into a parked truck, killing a 19-year-old man and leaving his brother with serious head injuries.
When onlookers gathered at the crash scene, where the group was busy pulling the driver from his wrecked vehicle and removing its registration plates, bullets were sprayed from an AK-47 rifle killing two, an 18-year-old woman and a 40-year-old man, and injuring several others.
Arrest warrants were issued for five suspects, including Nhim Sophea, who police and government officials later said was the person responsible for the shooting.
Than Chamroeun, one of those arrested in connection with the incident, also fingered Nhim Sophea as the shooter, Deputy Municipal Police Chief Heng Pov said after the arrest of Nhim Sophea on Nov 25.
Wearing a fitted paisley-patterned shirt, black trousers and black shoes, Nhim Sophea was led into the courtroom by prison guards and seated at a low bench in front of Prosecutor Siem Sok Oun and Tan Senarong.
Opening the proceedings, Tan Senarong summed up the case and the charges leveled against Nhim Sophea—who was later described by court officials as a student—and an associate, Som Doeun, who was also involved in the crash and shooting.
When asked to stand, Nhim Sophea appeared relaxed but watched and listened intently during his 30-minute court appearance.
Tan Senarong told the court that Nhim Sophea is charged with involuntary manslaughter and Som Doeun, 24, who is still at large, is charged with voluntary manslaughter related to the incident. However, the judge said there was too little evidence to proceed.
“In this case, I inspected and found that this case lacked a lot of evidence,” Tan Senarong said. “So, there is a need to postpone for further investigation. I will not return this case to the investigating judge, I will conduct this investigation myself.”
Prosecutor Siem Sok Oun agreed. “There needs to be more witnesses and more investigation at the scene,” he said.
According to Article 40 of the Untac Criminal Code, involuntary manslaughter can be brought against “Any person who through carelessness, negligence, inattention or failure to heed regulations involuntarily kills another person, is guilty of the misdemeanor of involuntary manslaughter.” The charge carries a one- to three-year prison sentence.
The more serious charge of voluntary manslaughter carries a prison sentence of eight to 15 years.
Dy Borima, Nhim Sophea’s lawyer, also approved of the postponement.
“There were more witnesses at the scene but the investigating judge did not ask them,” he said. “On the other hand there is also more evidence at the scene that the investigating judge needs to find out.”
Tan Senarong told the packed courtroom that the public will be told when the trial is rescheduled.
There appeared to be no representation in the courthouse for those who were killed and injured in the incident. Richard Nguon, who claims to represent the victims and their families, said he was not informed about the hearing.
“The victims didn’t go to the court, [the court] didn’t tell me,” he said Wednesday evening.
Following his court appearance, Nhim Sophea was led to a car parked at the back of courthouse and, as prison guards prepared to return him to prison, he was forced to seek shelter from television cameras and photographers in a narrow gap between a wooden hut and the back wall of the courthouse.
Speaking after the trial, Tan Senarong said that witness accounts claim that Nhim Sophea was not the man who fired the 12 bullets from the AK-47 rifle, but, instead, he had grappled with the shooter in an attempt to prevent the bloodshed.
The shooter was Sam Doeun, Tan Senarong said.
Nhim Sophea’s culpability stems from the fact that his finger, in his bid to prevent the shooting, may have accidentally touched off the trigger for two of the bullet discharges, the judge said.
Compensation of around $8,000 has been paid to the families of the two people killed in the incident, Tan Senarong added.
The judge’s latest version of the Oct 27 events clashes head-
long with eyewitness accounts given to reporters the following day.
Ou Narith, 24, the cousin of Long Mao, 19, who was killed when the car crashed into the coconut-laden truck he was unpacking, recounted how after the crash, four cars quickly parked nearby and men got out to help their friend, who was trapped in the car.
One of the men then began shouting at bystanders, “Go away! I will kill you all!” Ou Narith alleged.
The man then went to his vehicle and retrieved an AK-47 and fired indiscriminately at bystanders. The spray of bullets hit Ou Sitha, 40, and Phal Vanny, who were driving past the scene of the accident in their car.
Both died in the hospital and a third person in the car was injured, police said at the time.
Ou Narith did not mention any struggle for possession of the automatic weapon. He also said that after the group removed their injured friend from his vehicle, shots were fired as they departed.