A screwdriver, a television remote control, bunches of fresh vegetables, a liter of gasoline and a cooking pot were among the incriminating items found in the possession of some of the 21 suspects who stood trial Tuesday at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots in the capital.
Held for seven months in pre-trial detention awaiting Tuesday’s hearing, all but two of the 21 suspects were arrested in the hours and days after the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh and a dozen Thai-owned businesses were sacked and torched by a mob of youths numbering in the hundreds.
Mass arrests in the wake of the riots were held up as proof of police efforts to suppress the orgy of anti-Thai violence.
But the suspects, aged 19 to 46 years old, denied on the first day of the trial of having any part in the riots. Several claimed their confessions were forced by police.
The majority of those who appeared in court Tuesday claimed they were detained while gawking or scavenging in the grounds of the Royal Phnom Penh Hotel several hours after it had been torched by rioters.
Thirty-seven more suspects, who were released from prison on bail, had their statements read in court and will be tried in absentia.
“The military police arrested you and saw you holding a
screwdriver in your hand,” prosecutor Sok Roeun began in his questioning of suspect Cheang Kea, 35, who was the first to take the stand.
“Yes. I just picked up the screwdriver on the way back to my home and then the [military police] arrested me,” Cheang Kea told the court.
Suspect Sin Noat, 39, took the stand to answer charges that he was found carrying two bunches of vegetables when he was arrested by military police on the grounds of the same hotel.
Judge Tan Senarong asked the suspect if he had stolen the garden produce and Sin Noat admitted that he had.
“They looked very fresh and I picked them up in order to cook them. I am very poor,” said Sin Noat. He added the hotel’s vegetables were scattered around the grounds during the riot the previous night.
Sokh Phorn, 31, was arrested with a liter of gasoline at 8 am the day after the hotel was sacked.
“I saw the broken car was leaking petrol on the ground and I used a bottle to pick it up, about one liter, when the military police arrested me,” Sokh Phorn told the court. “I thought this petrol would be usable at my home.”
A frail and bewildered Nong Saroeun, 41—who suffers from deafness—took the stand but was unable to answer questions. Coming to her husband’s assistance, his wife, Nou Savy, 38, told the court that her husband has been sick for four years.
Nou Savy told reporters later that her husband, who lives with monks in a pagoda, suffers from mental illness and was arrested by police while wandering around the ruins of the hotel.
“He is simple, he knows nothing,” Nou Savy said.
Faculty of Law student Ken Sara—who is accused of having had a leadership role in the riots—strenuously denied the charge at the courthouse on Tuesday.
Recounting his arrest several days after the riots, Ken Sara said he was arrested without a warrant, bundled into the back of a vehicle, blindfolded, handcuffed and driven around Phnom Penh for several hours before being taken to a police station.
Suspect Thorn Veasna, 19, was also questioned by Sok Roeun about his alleged role in disseminating photocopied pages containing poems, songs and cartoons lampooning Thailand and Thai actress Suvanant Kongying, who was the focus of the anti-Thai rage.
A false report in a Cambodian newspaper alleging the Thai starlet had claimed Angkor Wat as Thai property provided the spark for the anti-Thai riots.
Thorn Veasna admitted in court that he had several photocopies in his possession in a Kompong Cham province school on Jan 29, but he denied dissemination the material other than showing the copies to several friends who had gathered around.
The court case is the first legal reckoning for the riots that caused more than $50 million in damages to Thai-owned interests in Cambodia.
Both the Thai and US governments have noted that the rioters were organized and systematic in the execution of their attacks and that local authorities appeared paralyzed in their response.
There has been no government report on the conduct and the widely believed failings of the national and military police in their response to the hundreds of young rioters who laid siege to Phnom Penh the night of the riots.
Former Phnom Penh governor Chea Sophara—who was in Preah Vihear province on the night of the destruction—was the only official to lose his job in the aftermath of the riots.
The trial continues today.