“Yellow-shirt” activist Veera Somkwamkid and his secretary, Ratree Pipatanapaiboon, were brought to Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday for questioning on espionage charges, officials said.
Mr Veera declined to answer questions at the courthouse, asking for a different interpreter, while Ms Ratree sought to appeal the spy charge, according to officials and a defense lawyer.
Mr Veera and Ms Ratree were among a group of seven Thais arrested near the border on Dec 29 and then charged with illegal border crossing and unauthorized entry into a military area. The group, which is detained in Prey Sar Prison, also includes Thai lawmaker Panich Vikitsreth. Mr Veera and Ms Ratree were singled out on Monday and also charged with attempting to gather information that affects national defense.
Deputy prosecutor Chea Meth declined comment on Ms Ratree’s answers at the court but said Mr Veera did not reply to any questions.
“Mr Veera did not answer questions, and he wants to find another interpreter,” Mr Meth said. “This is his right.”
Mr Meth said that no trial date had been scheduled and referred questions on the court schedule to Judge Chaing Sinat, who could not be reached.
Ms Ratree’s lawyer, Ros Oun, said his client yesterday thumbprinted a request for the investigation chamber to review the spying charge.
“My client denies the additional court charge because she thinks it is a very serious crime,” Mr Oun said. “She did not have ill intention. If she had bad intention, she would have destroyed all her equipment.”
Mr Veera’s lawyer, Pech Vicheka, declined to comment.
The espionage charge carries a 10-year maximum prison sentence, while the original charges carry a maximum combined sentence of 18 months.
Former Thai senator Karoon Sai-ngam, a member with Mr Veera of the Thai Patriots Network, went to the courthouse yesterday with Thai lawyer Nataporn Toprayoon, but neither was allowed into the interview session. Mr Karoon, who claimed on Sunday that the seven Thais had been arrested on “occupied” Thai soil, struck a more conciliatory note yesterday.
“It is time for the court to investigate the case first. Then we will decide how to help,” Mr Karoon said outside the courthouse.
Thani Thongphakdi, spokesman for the Thai Foreign Ministry, said yesterday that the government was concerned about the new charges.
“Certainly we’re concerned about the new charges that have been made because we have always believed that the seven people had entered into Cambodia unwittingly and with no ill intent,” Mr Thani said.
He added, however, that the court case was a “separate issue from our bilateral relations.”
“We respect Cambodia’s judiciary system, and we hope the issue will be resolved as soon as possible,” Mr Thani said.
Koy Kuong, spokesman for the Foreign Ministry, also said the new charges would not affect relations. In a speech on Monday, Prime Minister Hun Sen said there would be no interference in the court case.
The Thai Patriots Network plans to rally in Bangkok today to call for the resignations of Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjavjia and other Thai leaders over their handling of the case, according to The Bangkok Post.
Pavin Cachavalpongpun, a researcher at the Asean Studies Center in Singapore, said the new spying charges “could be used to further fan the flame of Thai nationalism.”
“The whole episode could help awaken the yellow-shirted movement,” Mr Pavin wrote in an e-mail Tuesday. “In the past year, it has been more or less dormant. Thus this is a good chance for the yellows to make noise, especially since the Thai election might be held soon.”
(Additional reporting by Cheng Sokhorng)