Deposed first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh was sentenced in absentia to five years in prison Wednesday by the Phnom Penh Military Court.
He was found guilty of illegally purchasing and transporting weapons. The verdict came eight months after the outbreak of factional fighting that led to the prince’s ouster.
Summing up the decision, Presiding Judge Ney Thol said the court accepted all of the testimony offered by the 10 witnesses called by the prosecution.
“The prince was the leader in this action, by using his position as first prime minister to purchase the weapons and attempting to deceive the authorities by falsely labeling them as spare parts,” Ney Thol said.
“Ranariddh thought out this tactic in advance in order to arm the anarchic forces with the purpose of seizing power and toppling the government,” he added. “The July events were evidence of this.”
Ney Thol sentenced General Nhiek Bun Chhay, one of the prince’s two co-defendants, to four years in prison for his “collusion” with the prince. The other defendant, the prince’s chief bodyguard, Thach Suong, was given a suspended sentence of two years on the grounds that he was an accomplice merely following the prince’s orders.
None of the accused offered a defense. The prince and his top general have both dismissed the trial as politically motivated and refused to recognize the court’s legitimacy.
The two-and-a-half-hour trial was held inside an auditorium in the Ministry of Defense headquarters on Pochentong Boulevard. Military police guarded 10 crates of ammunition and an anti-tank missile launcher displayed as evidence in front of the stage occupied by Ney Thol and prosecutor Sao Sok. Below the platform, an empty desk labeled “defense” was all but obscured from view by crowds of photographers and TV camera crews. About 300 others, mainly in military uniform, filled the seating area.
Sao Sok called nine witnesses in person, most of them customs and port officials from Sihanoukville, to describe the events surrounding the seizure of 78 crates of weapons and ammunition addressed to the prince May 26 last year. One witness, Tum Sambol, a former military adviser to the prince, offered written testimony in absentia.
“Prince Ranariddh, Nhiek Bun Chhay and Thach Suong were guilty, according to the evidence,” Sao Sok said. “It is the duty of the presiding judge to decide on the sentence.”
The verdict came as little surprise to any concerned, least of all the prince, who issued a statement on the eve of the trial predicting his condemnation by the court.
“I think he is not surprised,” Kong Vibol, a senior aide to the prince, told Agence France-Presse in Bangkok. “He knew in advance that the court was controlled by Hun Sen, so there was no way he was going to be acquitted.”
“We’re just here to see how many years he gets,” quipped one observer at the trial, reflecting the widespread opinion that the charges were politically motivated.
Prince Ranariddh still faces a March 17 trial on charges of collusion with the outlawed Khmer Rouge.
A pardon from his father, King Norodom Sihanouk, would remove the need for the prince to serve his sentence, but confusion still remains over whether it would quash the conviction. The international community is pushing for the prince to receive a full pardon to clear his way to participate in July’s scheduled elections.
The question of whether Nhiek Bun Chhay can receive a pardon remains uncertain. Speaking to AFP from his stronghold in the northern border town of O’Smach, the resistance leader dismissed the verdict, saying that it put the rest of a four-point Japanese peace proposal in jeopardy.
“I do not recognize the trial,” he said. “It threatens the Japanese peace plan because the leader of the troops has been convicted of a crime.” If his forces were left leaderless as a result of the trial, the general said, then the Japanese peace plan would be responsible for wiping out the resistance forces.
“If the Japanese proposal is implemented it means all of us will be killed one by one,” Nhiek Bun Chhay said, adding that the peace plan was fast becoming meaningless.
Few if any observers thought the trial would be fair. Legal experts questioned the correlation between the evidence offered and the laws the three accused were deemed to have broken.
“It’s been established to my satisfaction that Ranariddh wanted to import weapons, but the law doesn’t say that it’s illegal to import weapons,” one legal expert said, referring to the articles of the two laws cited by the prosecution.
“Nothing has been presented that established the three accused transported the weapons on Cambodian land,” he added, noting the weapons had allegedly been purchased in Poland.
“It doesn’t follow that a Cambodian law that prohibits the purchase of weapons without a letter of authorization can stretch to another country.”
Another expert agreed. “Logically there should be a provision forbidding the importation of weapons, but there isn’t,” the expert said.