Cambodia sentences 'coup plotters'
By Phelim Kyne
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Phnom Penh's Municipal Court has handed out prison sentences ranging from three years to life imprisonment for thirty suspects convicted in connection with street fighting in the Cambodian capital in November last year.
Five defendants, including Cambodian-Americans Richard Kiri Kim and Chhun Yasith -- the latter convicted in absentia -- received life sentences for their involvement in an alleged abortive coup attempt by members of a US-based anti-Cambodian government organization called the Cambodian Freedom Fighters (CFF).
An additional 22 suspects received prison sentences of between 13-20 years, while two defendants were acquitted due to a lack of evidence.
"I'm not surprised [by the verdict] because the Cambodian court is not independent," a defiant Kiri Kim told reporters as he was led from the courtroom following sentencing. "I did what I did to save my country."
The court's sole female defendant, Un Srey Mao, a 34 year-old single mother convicted of smuggling communications equipment for the group, became hysterical and had to be restrained by police after the judge announced her 13 year sentence for terrorist conspiracy and membership of an armed group.
Relatives of the accused wept openly outside the court in reaction to the verdicts, and one elderly woman had to be hospitalized for shock.
Human rights attack
The court verdict was immediately attacked by Cambodian human rights organizations who alleged the conduct of the trial was unfair and biased against the defendants.
"The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC) .... is deeply concerned about serious legal procedure violations which occurred before and during the CFF trial which concluded today," a press release from the coalition of eighteen civil society organizations stated.
"The CHRAC observed that the suspects have not been given a fair trial as guaranteed by the Cambodian Constitution, national law and international conventions."
The trial, which began on June 11, has also been a magnet for criticism from international human groups Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (LCHR), for perceived unfair treatment of the 32 defendants.
"Once again the Cambodian judicial system is in the spotlight, and once again it has failed to give a fair hearing to those on trial," an unprecedented June 20 joint statement from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch stated.
"No one questions the need to bring suspected criminals to justice, but even the most basic safeguards for the rights of the defendants have been absent from these proceedings."
The rights groups singled out severe restriction on public access to the high security trial proceedings as well as pre-trial irregularities that resulted in half of the defendants being deprived access to legal counsel for the entirety of their six month pre-trial detention period.
Six defense lawyers who led a boycott of trial proceedings for two days returned to court on June 13 after reportedly receiving threats of violence against themselves and their families. The 32 accused faced charges of terrorism, conspiracy, belonging to an armed group and for their involvement in street fighting that rocked the Cambodian capital in the early hours of November 24, 2000.
The series of bungled attacks on civil and military facilities killed seven people and injured at least a dozen others. Lawyers for the convicted announced that their verdicts would be appealed. Cambodia is still recovering from the damage done to the country by the Khmer Rouge regime which is accused of being responsible for the deaths of almost two million Cambodians during its 1975-1979 rule.
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