The students at the Cambodia Islamic Center in Kandal province removed their shoes at the entrance to the compound’s mosque, adding them to the pile that had already accumulated, and took their spots on the tile floor.
They prayed to Allah before Soff Komri, president of the Supreme Muslim Leaders in Cambodia, began speaking about their responsibilities and the importance of their studies.
“Here you must wash your clothes by yourselves because your parents are not here to help you,” he said. “You must not keep your hair long or shaved because that is the gangster style.”
Soff Komri and the Khmer teachers who work at the school distributed skull caps provided by a Malaysian Muslim organization and took pictures of the 270 newly-capped students.
The scene played out on this quiet Tuesday afternoon was a stark contrast to events on May 25, 2003, when police arrested two Thai Muslims, Abdul Azi Haji Chiming, 35, and Muhammad Yalaludin Mading, 41, as well as an Egyptian national named Esam Mohammed Khadr Ali, 40. The two Thais were teachers at the school, formerly known as Om-Alqura Institute, while the Egyptian was the director of the Saudi-based Om-Alqura Foundation, from where the school’s funding flowed.
Police closed the school and confiscated evidence for what would be Cambodia’s first trial of alleged Islamic militants.
On June 12, police arrested Sman Esma El, a Cambodian Cham Muslim. Police said Sman Esma El had studied at Islamic schools in Thailand for three years and was linked to the militant group.
In December 2003, the UN Security Council committee described the Om-Alqura Foundation as a feeder charity for al-Qaida and other terrorist activities and named Cambodia among the places where Om-Alqura operated, as well as Thailand, Bosnia and Chechnya.
According to a US intelligence report released to Cambodian authorities before the arrests, suspected Jemaah Islamiyah leader Hambali, also known as Riduan Isamuddin, hid out and lived in Cambodia from September 2002 to March 2003, and possibly prepared Cambodia as a staging ground for terrorist attacks in the region.
But some questioned the timing of the arrests, just weeks before US Secretary of State Colin Powell was scheduled to visit Phnom Penh for the Asean Regional Forum.
Those concerns would continue to be voiced throughout the 20 months the four were held in pre-trial detention and as confusion reigned over the court proceedings and criminal investigation.
The men were refused bail at least three times. Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge Oun Bunna said there wasn’t enough evidence to put the men on trial and was promptly taken off the case.
A scheduled Feb 27 trial broke down after Presiding Judge Ya Sakhon refused to read the article under which the men were charged and defense attorney Kao Soupha walked out of the courtroom.
It was later revealed the charge had been changed from Article 2 to Article 3 of Cambodia’s anti-terrorism law—a law adopted in 1992 and intended for the prosecution of Khmer Rouge members.
While Article 2 pertains to kidnapping and holds a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison, Article 3 pertains to killing or attempted killing and requires a mandatory life sentence.
At the aborted Feb 27 trial, a fifth man, Rousha Yasser, Om-Alqura Institute’s former director, was named as yet another suspect. He would be tried in absentia, along with Hambali and two associates, Ibrahim and Zaid, who were also charged under the anti-terrorism act.
Also at the aborted trial, a US Federal Bureau of Investigation agent unveiled for the first time the alleged plot to attack the US and British embassies in Cambodia.
Finally, on Dec 28, 2004, Esam Mohammed Khadr Ali, Sman Esma El, Abdul Azi Haji Chiming and Muhammad Yalaludin Mading appeared for trial before presiding Judge Ya Sakhon.
The trial lasted all day. One by one, Ya Sakhon questioned the men. Many of the links mentioned in police and US intelligence reports, however, were never mentioned.
Police reports said Abdul Azi Haji Chiming, one of the two Thais, was related to Ibrahim and Zakaria through marriage, but the relationship was never mentioned in court.
The reports also stated the Thai had bought a mobile phone for Hambali’s use, but again this was never mentioned in court. Abdul Azi Haji Chiming said Hambali had asked him to obtain passports for the men but he had told them he wasn’t able to do so.
The most damning admission to come out of the court was that Abdul Azi Haji Chiming had held onto Hambali’s bag which contained money and a number of CDs. One of the CDs contained instructions on how to plant car bombs.
The Thai said before Hambali left Cambodia a party had been organized at the Om-Alqura dormitories that Hambali and Ibrahim attended. He denied that the group had talked about bombing the embassies and said he only learned of the alleged plot after he was arrested.
After the party, Hambali left the bag with the Thai for safekeeping. Abdul Azi Haji Chiming admitted he watched the video but only because he was a sports fan and had thought it was about Thai soccer. The video was never shown in court.
Muhammad Yalaludin Mading said he had known Abdul Azi Haji Chiming for many years but was unaware of the other Thai’s relationship with the suspected terrorists.
The Egyptian, Esam Mohammed Khadr Ali, was asked about how the Om-Alqura Foundation received its funding and how it was spent.
“When I need money, I check the bank,” he replied, adding the money was used for meals for the students and teachers, salaries, electricity bills, office materials and a small reserve for natural disasters.
He denied ever knowing Hambali or his colleagues and said the Om-Alqura Foundation was a good charity that helps poor Muslims.
The court then turned to three witnesses, including a motor taxi driver and car repairman who testified he overheard Ibrahim and Hambali planning to attack the British and US Embassies in English even though he admits he doesn’t speak the language.
The following day, Ya Sakhon found Sman Esma El, the two Thai Muslims, Hambali, Ibrahim and Rousha Yasser guilty and sentenced them to life in prison.
No mention was made of Zakariya or Zaid, the other two men being tried in absentia.
Esam Mohammed Khadr Ali, the Egyptian, was the only man freed.
The verdict was welcomed by the US and British embassies. It was offering rare applause from two countries that have criticized Cambodia’s much-maligned judicial system. However, the UN human rights office in Phnom Penh voiced concern about “irregularities” in the trial, while retired King Norodom Sihanouk urged for pardons.
Following his release, Esam Mohammed Khadr Ali told reporters on Dec 30 at his Phnom Penh hotel that when he first flew into Cambodia on Nov 21, 2002, his goal was to be a teacher and to help Cambodian Chams through charity work.
The Egyptian maintained he didn’t really know the two Thais or Sman Esma El. But he said: “If I meet a killer, it doesn’t mean I am a killer…. Maybe they are terrorists, but I don’t know.”
When he learned he was being investigated for links to Jemaah Islamiyah, he said he was stunned. He decried the Sept 11, 2001, attacks on the US, hoped for peace in Iraq and called the Jemaah Islamiyah “wrong-doers.”
“I am a good, honest man,” the Egyptian said.
Today, the Om-Alqura Institute is no more.
More than a year after the government ordered the school closed, it reopened under a different name, the Cambodian Islamic Center.
Gone are the 36 Arabic teachers, hailing from Yemen, Thailand, Malaysia and Pakistan, who were ordered to leave the country in the aftermath of the arrests.
There are only 270 students where there were once 600. The US Embassy donated three computers to the school after the old machines were taken for evidence.
The school now receives most of its funding from Malaysia, but the money coming in is not nearly as much as when Om-Alqura was involved. Still, Pech Solin, the school’s general education director, said staff at the school do not want Om-Alqura to return.
“They are scared of being involved in something,” he said.