After 20 months behind bars awaiting trial, two Thai Muslims and a Cambodian Cham were handed life sentences after being convicted on terrorism charges while an Egyptian national was freed by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
Three other suspects, Riduan Isamuddin, the Jemaah Islamiyah operations chief better known as Hambali, Rousha Yasser and a man known as Ibrahim were tried in absentia and also sentenced to life in prison for plotting to bomb the US and British embassies in Phnom Penh.
Wednesday’s verdict did not mention two other suspects whom the court said on Tuesday were being tried in absentia and were identified only as Zakariya and Zaid.
Presiding Judge Ya Sakhon said he believed Thai Muslims Abdul Azi Haji Chiming, 35, Muhammad Yalaludin Mading, 41, and Cambodian Cham Sman Esma El, 24, were involved in the plot to bomb the embassies and were linked to Jemaah Islamiyah, the militant Islamic group implicated in the Bali bombing in 2002 and the JW Marriott Hotel bombing in Jakarta in 2003.
“I hereby decide to punish Hambali, called Mizi, Ibrahim, called Awang, and Rousha Yasser to one life in prison in absentia,” Ya Sakhon told the court.
“Two, punish Abdul Azi Haji Chiming, Muhammad Yalaludin Mading and Sman Esma El, each to life sentences counting from the day of their arrest,” he said.
Not provided a Khmer translator at the reading of the verdict, the two Thai men did not appear to be aware that they had been sentenced to life in prison while Egyptian national Esam Mohammed Khadr Ali, 40, did not appear to know he had been cleared of all charges.
Kao Soupha, one of the lawyers defending the Egyptian and two Thais, said he was upset by the verdict.
“I am not happy with the release of one of the accused because based on the evidence, none of the accused should be punished,” he said.
“There is no evidence at all,” he said, adding he had not yet decided whether to appeal the court’s decision.
Kao Soupha blasted the appearance in court on Tuesday of the prosecution’s key witness—a motorcycle taxi driver from Siem Reap province, Than Lundy, 29.
Than Lundy told the court Tuesday that he could not speak English but was able to testify that he had overheard Hambali and Ibrahim, while conversing in English, plotting to bomb the embassies.
Om Yentieng, adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen and head of the government’s human rights committee, said outside the courtroom that he felt the trial was a success for Cambodia.
However, Om Yentieng said he was upset that Esam Mohammed Khadr Ali was cleared of the charges, but warned that if further evidence came forward, the Egyptian could be tried again.
“We really regret that the police did not collect all the evidence needed to [convict] Ali,” he said.
“But, the important thing is that if next time we find enough evidence to [convict] Ali, then we will come back.”
Ahmad Yahya, an opposition parliamentarian and a prominent member of the Cham community who last year vouched for Esam Mohammed Khadr Ali’s innocence, said he was happy to see the release of the former director of the formerly Saudi-funded Om-Alqura Institute in Kandal province.
“He’s been unlucky that he spent 20 months in jail,” Ahmad Yahya said. “I investigated the case, and he did not know anything [about the plot].”
Ahmad Yahya said Esam Mohammed Khadr Ali was still with police signing papers and would likely be released today.
He said the Egyptian has contacted his wife in Egypt, but Ahmad Yahya didn’t know what the man’s plans were.
“I will suggest he should work in the school to prove he’s innocent,” Ahmad Yahya said.
The Cham community has been watching the entire case with trepidation, Ahmad Yahya said, adding he did not know what the fallout would be from the verdict.
Spokespersons for the US and British embassies welcomed the news on Wednesday.
“We have followed the trial closely,” said US Embassy spokeswoman Heide Bronke.
“We welcome the verdict delivered by the court today and we greatly appreciate the continued cooperation of the Royal Government of Cambodia in the fight against terrorism,” she said.
British Embassy Charge d’Affaires John Mitchell also welcomed the court’s verdict and praised the Cambodian government’s efforts in the war on terror.
On May 28, 2003, the three foreign Muslims were arrested for alleged links to Jemaah Islamiyah based on information provided by the US government.
Cambodian authorities also closed two Islamic schools, including the Om-Alqura Institute where the three worked. On June 12, Sman Esma El was arrested.
The four men were initially charged under Article 2 of Cambodia’s Law on Punishment of the Acts of Terrorism, but Ya Sakhon and Yet Chakriya recharged the men under Article 3 on Feb 27 because the original charge, pertaining to kidnapping, did not match their suspected bomb-related activities.
The four were denied bail during their 20 month incarceration, which was more than three times the maximum six-month time allowed by law.