The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday handed down sentences of between six and 12 years in jail to six men over their alleged roles in a thwarted plot to bomb November’s Water Festival celebrations.
Presiding Judge Kim Ravy gave sentences of six years in prison to Neang Song, 38, Som Soth, 42, Pov Sam An, 46 and Saing Bunly, 45. Two men tried in absentia, Thach Hang and Prak Khan, each received sentences of 12 years.
Two other men, Chan Rith, 47, and Luos Vanthan, 38, were acquitted.
“After deliberations in accordance with the law, there was one group having the intent to cause terrorism before and after the Water Festival,” Kim Ravy said. The verdict followed a two-day trial held in June and July that concluded July 25.
“They really had the intent to do it,” Kim Ravy said. He added that the four convicted men present in court had been in contact with Thach Hang, whom Kim Ravy described as the one “who had the plan” and had promised the others positions as “municipal governors and police chiefs” if the plot succeeded.
Three days before the 2006 Water Festival celebrations, authorities announced that in a sweep of arrests starting in late October they had detained six suspects, mainly farmers from provinces including Kandal, Siem Reap, Battambang and Svay Rieng, and were seeking another two men.
Thursday’s convictions were handed down under the four-article-long 1992 law on terrorism. The National Assembly in late June approved significantly more comprehensive legislation drafted with substantial assistance from Australia.
Details of the plot had remained scarce since the arrests, at which time an Interior Ministry official said the plotters had not yet reached the point of acquiring any bombs.
However, the prosecution accused the men of acting in the vain hope of toppling government officials and rising to power in their place.
“Even though there had not yet been any destruction, there was an intent to cause the toppling,” said Kim Ravy.
At trial, prosecutor Hing Bunchea introduced no physical evidence but referred to an intelligence report by Interior Ministry General Information Department Director Chhay Sinarith as well as a written statement given in October to Siem Reap province police by a man named Long Lam, whose very existence defense lawyers questioned.
An Interior Ministry official also testified that authorities had not tortured the suspects to coerce confessions, as defense lawyer Teang Vuthea had previously claimed.
Following the verdict, Luos Vanthan of Battambang province, who had previously planned to work as a building contractor, said he was elated at his acquittal.
“I am so excited,” he said.
However Som Soth, a Svay Rieng province farmer, said his conviction had been unfair.
“I didn’t know anything,” he said “They arrested and intimidated me to thumbprint [a confession].”
Pov Sam An, also a Svay Rieng province farmer, decried his punishment as well.
“If there was a little evidence, I would be satisfied,” he said. “They only arrested the poor to be jailed. What would the poor commit terrorism for?”
Teang Vuthea was not present to hear the verdict against his clients and could not be reached for comment.
Hing Bunchea said he had not yet decided whether to appeal the acquittals of Chan Rith and Luos Vanthan, declining further comment.
Observers on Thursday said the trial appeared flawed.
“The case gives rise to a number of serious procedural concerns, including allegations of arbitrary arrest and ill-treatment of the accused in detention, which must be thoroughly investigated,” UN human rights office in Phnom Penh acting country representative Henrik Stenman wrote by email. “These concerns need to be taken into full consideration in the appeals process.”
Theary Seng, executive director of the legal monitoring NGO the Center for Social Development, said case seemed designed to encourage fear.
“From a legal point of view, the process is very shoddy and the evidence is very shallow,” she said. “It looks highly suspicious that it’s more than an average case of irregularity.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak said police had only followed standard procedure.
“What we have done is to collect all the evidence and send it to the court,” he said, adding that any weaknesses in the evidence leading to Thursday’s verdict could be addressed on appeal.