During their trial at the Kandal Provincial Court on Tuesday, five men accused of complicity in stealing relics of the Buddha from a stupa atop Oudong Mountain in 2013 maintained their innocence, while a sixth man again claimed sole responsibility for the theft.
Stupa security guards Chorm Thai, Sieng Sarin and Ka Sak, along with chief of security Pha Sokhem and moto-taxi driver Kann Sopheak, were arrested in December 2013 and charged over the theft of the relics—said to be the hair, teeth and bones of the Buddha—earlier that month.
All five say they are innocent and have been imprisoned since, despite the February 2014 arrest of a farmer in Takeo province, Keo Reaksmey, 26, who confessed to the theft. Police apprehended Mr. Reaksmey when he began flaunting his apparently newfound wealth in the form of new motorbikes and a car.
After searching his Traing district home, police found the relics, along with a number of gold Buddha statues he also allegedly stole from the mountaintop stupa.
Mr. Reaksmey confessed to stealing the objects shortly after his arrest and on Tuesday gave the court a thorough description of how he nearly got away with the crime.
“I bought a screwdriver, a hammer, pliers and acid from a spot on the road” on the way to the stupa, he said.
The farmer then explained how he slipped past the three sleeping security guards and used the tools to break into the stupa and steal the relics and statues.
“I stole 13 golden Buddha statues and the Buddhist relics and then took the golden Buddha statues to make into gold to sell,” Mr. Reaksmey said, adding that he used the money he made from the gold to buy a car worth more than $20,000.
For the first time, Mr. Reaksmey also admitted to stealing three rings from the stupa.
After giving the court his account of the theft, deputy prosecutor Sam Rithyveasna attempted to poke holes in Mr. Reaksmey’s confession and asked why he had not mentioned the rings before.
Mr. Rithyveasna, unsatisfied by Mr. Reaksmey’s muddled response, then began a more aggressive line of questioning.
“If you stole [from the stupa] by yourself, why, when I questioned you, could you not answer clearly about your theft?” Mr. Rithyveasna said. “You are lying to the court.”
As Mr. Rithyveasna continued to barrage the farmer with questions, Mr. Reaksmey dropped to his knees and remained in the position in silence until Presiding Judge Say Samphors Serey told a courthouse guard to sit him in a chair.
Mr. Rithyveasna then turned his attention to Mr. Sokhem, the stupa’s former chief of security.
“I did not commit the crime,” Mr. Sokhem told the court.
“If you did not commit it, then why were your hand and footprints at the place where [the theft] happened?” the prosecutor retorted. “Those prints are new prints, they are not old prints, based on the examination.”
Mr. Sokhem said the prints could have been from when he entered the stupa about a month before the theft as part of his duties, and that he had not been on the mountain at the time of the crime, having attended a meeting elsewhere that day.
The handprints and footprints of the five men found on the floor, wall and door of the stupa are the only evidence the court has produced against them.
The other defendants also said they played no role in the theft, with the three security guards saying they were fast asleep when Mr. Reaksmey allegedly forced his way into the stupa.
“The day it happened, I was sleeping in a hammock near Ka Sak,” Mr. Thai said. “Sieng Sarin knew about the problem first and woke us up.”
Chheng Phat, a lawyer for the five men, said the court had produced a weak case against his clients.
“Keo Reaksmey said that he did it himself and that it did not involve the five men,” he said.
“I support the resolution warrant from the investigating judge that determined that the five men were not involved in this case,” he added, referring to the provincial court’s decision to dismiss the charges against the five in November last year, which was overruled by the Appeal Court a month later.
Judge Samphors Srey said the court would announce a verdict on August 27.