Trial of 32 CFF Rebels Starts

Despite defense objections, the trial of the first of 32 people charged with leading the failed November uprising that killed at least eight people began Monday in a heavily guarded Phnom Penh courthouse.

After spending the morning reading charges against 30 of the defendants present and two Cam­bodian-Americans being tried in absentia, the trial of Cambodian-American Richard Kiri Kim opened with the defendant de­man­ding a new judge.

All 32 defendants are accused of being members of the Cambo­dian Freedom Fighters, which authorities charge mounted a failed coup attempt in late Nov­ember 2000 when it attacked three government buildings in and around Phnom Penh

Kiri Kim, one of the alleged leaders of the CFF and a US citizen who lived in the US state of Wash­ington, said in court and afterwards that he did not think he could get a fair trial.

“They know it. They know it. The court system in Cambodia is not independent. I don’t trust the courts in Cambodia,” he said at the end of the day’s proceedings.

Nonetheless, Kiri Kim admitted to helping lead the group and trying to topple the government.

“What I am doing is to help the Cambodian people to liberate the country because of the injustice in society, in the court and everywhere,” he told trial Judge Sok Setha Mony.

During his two and one-half hour testimony, Kiri Kim’s voice cracked as he stooped low to the court’s microphone and said that he had no intention of overthrowing King Norodom Sihanouk.

David Chaniawa, Kiri Kim’s lawyer, asked that his client be released on bail because he has been held for more than six months, which violates Cambodian law.

“I would like to ask the judge to let me stay outside the prison because I have been in prison over six months, so you should let me stay outside. My health is not good,” Kiri Kim said.

Afterward, as he was being led away to the charter bus with his fellow prisoners, Kiri Kim said that he was not treated well in prison.

During the afternoon’s proceeding, eight lawyers for the other defendants walked out of the courtroom to protest Sok Setha Mony’s decision barring reporters from the morning session. Shortly afterward, the judge relented.

Among the others standing trial is Nou Sarun, a former Funcinpec deputy chief of staff for Military Region 2. Chhun Yasith, the admitted leader of CFF, had accused him of being careless in his preparations for the attack.

Bhun Chan To, president of the Sam Rainsy Party City Council in Pailin and a lieutenant in the Pailin municipality’s military, is also on trial. He was a reporter for the Voice of Khmer Youth newspaper. Another Pailin arrestee is Tomlab Mel, who is listed as a CFF commander in the former Khmer Rouge stronghold.

An Mao is also a former Khmer Rouge commander and is on the CFF executive committee. Chhun Yasith said he saw An Mao’s capture as a big loss to the CFF because he was a strong commander.

Un Srey Mao, 34, is the only woman among the group that stood trial Monday. She allegedly stored ICOMs in her Banteay Meanchey home that helped CFF members communicate during the attack.

Chhun Yasith and Thong Samien, both Cambodian-Americans, are being tried in absentia. As he was led towards the bus, Kiri Kim was asked if he felt that his two countrymen had abandoned him.

He nodded several times.

All 32 defendants could face life in prison if convicted.

Security around the courtroom was tight, especially in the morning session. Police blockaded the entire street at each end of the block, frisked visitors to the court compound, and prowled the grounds with more than a dozen yelping German shepherd dogs and automatic rifles.

(Additional reporting by Gina Chon)


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