A Japanese plan for the return of deposed prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh looked to be in tatters Wednesday after the Phnom Penh Military Court handed down a 30-year jail sentence and demanded more than a total of $56 million in compensation. The prince and three top aides were convicted of charges of conspiring with the outlawed Khmer Rouge to overthrow the government.
A royal pardon granted by King Norodom Sihanouk could wipe out the prince’s jail sentence, but according to Justice Minister Chem Sgnuon, not even that can free the prince from liability for civil damages payable to victims.
“No, no, no,” Chem Sgnuon said late Wednesday when asked whether a pardon would expunge the $56 million payment demanded by the court.
“The King does not have jurisdiction. The pardon does not cover compensation. It only covers the conviction.”
Even with a pardon, which is by no means assured, Prince Ranariddh could face prison if he returns to Cambodia.
“The compensation still stands and has to be paid. If he doesn’t pay, or, if he refuses to pay, he will be arrested and sentenced in lieu of payment,” the justice minister said.
Legal experts agreed that legal precedent supports the justice minister’s assertion. In every other case to date in which royal pardons have been granted to convicts with debts outstanding, they have been obliged to serve an additional jail term in lieu of payment, one lawyer said.
“The bottom line is Ranariddh will refuse to pay even if he had that kind of money. It would be an admission of guilt,” said the lawyer, adding that the compensation demand amounted to a political trick.
“The result is the whole peace plan is finished,” the lawyer asserted.
A senior Western diplomat agreed. “You can make all the peace plans you want,” he said. “But [Second Prime Minister] Hun Sen doesn’t care. He doesn’t want Prince Ranariddh coming back. It’s that simple. It’s been that simple.”
The two-day trial was intended as a step in a Japanese-brokered peace plan aimed at bringing back the prince for participation in the scheduled July elections. Under the proposal, King Norodom Sihanouk would pardon the prince following his conviction, making him eligible to run in the polls.
“The only thing that can save Ranariddh now is intense international pressure of a kind we have never seen to date,” one legal analyst said. “But it’s an unusual case and unusual things happen here.”
Other government officials closely connected with the peace plan were unable to comment on whether the prince’s return was now in jeopardy.
“I don’t know,” said Prak Sokhonn, a senior aide to Hun Sen, said Wednesday. ”Let the lawyers deal with that.”
The compensation demand calls for the prince and his co-defendants, top military aides Serey Kosal, Nhiek Bun Chhay and Chao Sambath, to pay more than $56 million in compensation to the government, private companies and individuals who suffered losses as a result of the July 5 and 6 street battles between forces loyal to the prince and Hun Sen.
The four were also ordered to compensate RCAF for the loss of a helicopter that ferried negotiators on a clandestine mission to meet with rebels in Anlong Veng.
Property belonging to the four was ordered confiscated and sold to raise funds for the compensation. If unable to pay the damages, the judge said, the defendants would be compelled to serve additional time in jail in lieu of payment.
Nhiek Bun Chhay, former first deputy chief of RCAF general staff, Serey Kosal, the prince’s security adviser, and Chao Sambath, a former intelligence officer, were each sentenced to 20 years in prison for their roles in the alleged conspiracy.
None of the accused attended the trial or put up a defense, refusing to recognize the jurisdiction of the court or the charges against them.
The prince’s prison term is to follow the five-year prison sentence handed down at his first trial on March 4.
Nhiek Bun Chhay faces a total of 24 years behind bars, including his four-year sentence from the March 4 weapons trial.
Serey Kosal, sentenced last month to 10 years for antiquities theft, now faces a total of 30 years in prison. The fourth defendant, Chao Sambath, was executed following the July fighting that led to the prince’s ouster, although the government has never acknowledged his death.
In his summing up, Ney Thol told the court that “Prince Ranariddh had the intention and the plan to launch a coup d’etat to topple the government and grab power by the use of force. This act took place on July 5 and 6, as shown in the evidence.”
Witnesses for the prosecution testified Tuesday that the prince and his commanders had illegally armed rebel troops and brought them into the capital to prepare for an attack on the second prime minister’s Takhmau base.
Prosecutor Sao Sok traced the alleged plot back to a January 1996 meeting at which the prince had ordered Funcinpec troops to prepare for a military build-up in order to take on the CPP.
This, he alleged, resulted in the prince beginning negotiations with the hard-line rebel faction in Anlong Veng, and forming an alliance with nominal Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan.
The prince’s cabinet in Bangkok on Wednesday condemned the trial, saying it was aimed at “preventing him from participating in the elections scheduled for July 1998, because his participation would be a challenge to the current illegal supremacy of coup maker Hun Sen and the CPP.”
Earlier Wednesday, the prince’s close aide, Kong Vibol, told Agence France-Presse that the prince’s sister, Princess Boppha Devi, was ready to request a pardon on the prince’s behalf, as proposed in the Japanese plan.
The King, however, has insisted that he must also gain the approval of both prime ministers before granting the pardon, claiming that he risked being overthrown if he acted independently.
Observers noted that this reticence makes it unlikely the King would challenge the legal argument that he cannot dismiss civil damages with a pardon.
The statement by the prince’s cabinet also leant weight to the assumption that a compensation demand in excess of $50 million may be well beyond the prince’s means.
“As far as the confiscation of Prince Ranariddh’s property in Cambodia is concerned…the sole property the Prince owns is the house illegally given by the so-called People’s Republic of Kampuchea in 1980 to the Russian Ambassador in Phnom Penh,” the statement asserted.
“The Russian Ambassador should perhaps start looking for alternative accommodation?” the statement proposed.
(Additional reporting by Rachel Watson and Chris Decherd)