The Appeals Court prosecutor who presided over Nhim Sophea’s little-known hearing in August said on Thursday that the trial was open to the public, but it was not the court’s duty to “walk to tell everyone” about upcoming hearings.
“It really was a public hearing,” the Appeals Court’s Deputy General Prosecutor Kong Srim said.
Human rights groups and legal officials familiar with the case expressed surprise earlier this week following news that Nhim Sophea, a nephew of Prime Minister Hun Sen, had been acquitted in August of all charges related to the Oct 27, 2003, crash and shooting that claimed the lives of three people and left four injured.
Appeals Court documents viewed on Thursday confirmed Nhim Sophea’s hearing was held on Aug 26.
Appeals Court Presiding Judge Thou Mony and Advisory Judges Um Sarith and Nguon Im cleared Nhim Sophea of all charges—overturning an involuntary manslaughter conviction that was handed down by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in March.
Thou Mony said on Monday that judges Samrith Sophal and Chem Vayarith had participated in the trial.
Sam Doeun, a 22-year-old man of whom little is known and who is still at large, was convicted in absentia of intentional manslaughter and traffic violations by the Municipal Court in March and sentenced to 10 years in prison for the crime.
Court documents show that Sam Doeun is a resident of Phnom Penh’s Chaktomuk commune in Daun Penh district. The documents also showed that, contrary to comments by Thou Mony on Monday, Nhim Sophea did not miss his Aug 26 appeal hearing because of illness.
According to court documents, Nhim Sophea wrote a letter on Aug 23—responding to an Appeals Court summons issued Aug 5—asking to be excused from the proceedings.
“I am Nhim Sophea…[and I] request not to appear in the hearing on Aug 26, 2004, at 7:30 am at the Appeals Court,” the letter reads. “I have confessed everything according to the legal procedure at the low level court already,” he added.
The letter was endorsed by PJ Prison Director Srey Watha who stated he: “Had seen and stated that this right-hand thumbprint is really from Nhim Sophea, who is being detained in PJ Prison.”
The subsequent Appeals Court judgment, clearing Nhim Sophea of all wrongdoing, was immediate with an order for his release.
“This verdict is delivered in a public hearing and with a public announcement in front of the defending lawyer, in absentia of the accused and complainants,” the court documents stated, adding that the matter could be referred to the Supreme Court if so desired.
Neither the victims nor their lawyers were present during the Appeals Court hearing.
Asked why the Appeals Court did not refer an appeal of the verdict on to the Supreme Court, Deputy General Prosecutors Kong Srim said it was an issue for the Appeals Court general prosecutor.
“If the general prosecutor decides the case was not handled correctly, he can launch a complaint to the Supreme Court,” Kong Srim said.
Repeated attempts to contact General Prosecutor Hanrot Raken at his office throughout the week were unsuccessful.
Interviewed this week, senior police and court officials appeared to be unclear as to who is responsible for finding Sam Doeun.
Asked about the status of the hunt for Sam Doeun, Thou Mony said Monday that police were looking for him.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said Thursday: “This is a case handled by the municipal police and the courts.”
Municipal Police Chief Heng Pov said on Thursday that he was unaware of the case and referred questions to the courts.
Municipal Penal Police Chief Reach Sokhon said that if he met Sam Doeun he would arrest him, but admitted he had almost forgotten about the case.
“Thank you for reminding me of this matter,” he said on Monday.
News of Nhim Sophea’s release came only days after Hun Sen praised the court officials who put his nephew behind bars, and warned that the children of government officials who commit crimes will not be protected from the law.
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith said on Wednesday he did not know whether the prime minister knew of his nephew’s release before making his comments last week.
Khieu Kanharith also said he was still trying to confirm that Nhim Sophea had in fact been released.
The government spokesman also denied that the prime minister had any influence over his nephew’s acquittal.
“I know [Hun Sen] very well,” Khieu Kanharith said. “He never interferes in justice.”