Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Courtroom mumblings

It was all over in ten minutes. The three presiding judges filed in, called the court to order and signalled the corrections official to bring in the five men accused of murder and abduction. Khem Nguon (pictured right) brushed past his fellow captives with a large manila envelope covering his face from the telephoto lenses of the press photographers at the court gates. His four co-defendants shuffled in behind him, looking cowed and fearing the worst. They were followed in by members of their families looking equally downcast. The Nguon family bodyguard plonked his large frame down next to me on the wooden seat at the rear of the tiny courtroom. On the other side of me was Phnom Penh Post reporter Georgia Wilkins. Lead judge Iv Kimsry wasted no time in announcing the outcome of his deliberations following the full-day trial on 3 October, handing out guilty verdicts and jail sentences of twenty years to Khem Nguon, Loch Mao and Puth Lim for the murder of Christopher Howes, whilst Sin Dorn was jailed for 10 years for his part in the kidnapping of the MAG demining team. A fifth defendant, Chep Cheat was acquitted for his part in the kidnap. The judge announced that the three accused of murder must also pay a total of $10,000 between them to the families of the deceased. Everything that was said by the judge was in Khmer. My own translator was late arriving for the announcement and just caught the last few seconds of Iv Kimsry's verdicts, so I had to wait until the courtroom cleared to glean the full details from the MAG Country Programme Manager Rupert Leighton, who sat in court with Elizabeth Evans from the British Embassy. Georgia looked as equally perplexed as I did, but had her Khmer colleague to rely on for the facts. As soon as the judge had stopped talking, the majority of the fifty people in the courtroom bolted for the door. Before the accused men, dressed in blue regulation prison uniforms, were allowed to leave the room, they had to sign and thumbprint a record card and were then escorted outside to sit on benches at the back of the Municipal Court yard, where family members crowded around them to offer condolences and food. Khem Nguon, regarded as the man who supervised the murder, was comforted by his two children, but well away from the prying eyes of the photographers. Khmer press reporters attempted to get interviews with the prisoners as they awaited transportation back to Prey Sar prison but only Puth Lim (left) seemed willing to talk, claiming his innocence. I grabbed a few minutes with Chhun Kham, the widow of Houn Hourth to speak to her about her husband before BBC reporter Guy De Launey arrived and interviewed her briefly, though she looked ill at ease, and Rupert Leighton, who handed out a prepared statement from MAG and Christopher's family. Soon after, the scene was quiet again, the press had packed up and left and the only people remaining were the prisoners, who would begin their new jail sentences as soon as their corrections van was ready to leave.
For video footage of reactions to the verdict, click here.
Photographs courtesy of PPP and AP


Blogger Andy Brouwer said...

Today's (15 Oct) Cambodia Daily carried a report of yesterday's verdicts by Prak Chan Thul under the heading Ex-KR Soldiers Sentenced in Deminers' Deaths.

In it he clarified the sentences handed to the 4 men found guilty. 20 years in prison was given to Khim Ngon, Loch Mao and Puth Lim. The judge also ordered the three men, who were convicted of three charges - premeditated killing, kidnapping and being members of the Khmer Rouge - to pay a total of $10,000 in compensation to Houn Hourth's family.
Suspect Cheab Chet was acquitted of premeditated killing, the only charge against him. The Siem Reap provincial court had previously convicted and sentenced Cheab Chet in 1997 to five years in prison for being a member of the Khmer Rouge - which was outlawed in 1994 - but he served only nine months before receiving a royal pardon.
The judges also cleared Sin Dorn of kidnapping and premeditated killing charges in the deaths of Howes and Houn Hourth, who were abducted in Siem Reap's Angkor Thom district province and later executed in Anlong Veng. However, the judges did find Sin Dorn guilty of belonging to the Khmer Rouge military and sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
Defendant Puth Lim decried the 20-year sentence he received, saying it was unjust given that he had only collected materials to burn the body of the slain deminer. "There is no justice," Puth Lim told reporters. "They ordered me to burn, and if I didn't burn, they would kill me," he said adding those orders came from Pol Pot and Ta Mok.
Attorney Long Dara, who represented Khim Ngon, said that he would appeal the decision, adding that the court unfairly convicted men that had defected from the Khmer Rouge in the name of peace. "It was not justice or transparent for people who had already surrendered to the government," Long Dara said.

October 15, 2008 at 8:41 AM  
Blogger Andy Brouwer said...

The major parts of the investigation into the background of the kidnap and murders of Christopher and Hourth were conducted a decade ago by the Cambodian intelligence officers and the British Police led by Mike Dixon, who gave evidence at the trial on 3 Oct. Dixon is now back in PPenh working at the Khmer Rouge Tribunal I'm told.
Another key figure in the investigation into what happened is George Cooper. In 2002, George Cooper, an American legal aid lawyer based in Cambodia, took up the case in his spare time and painstakingly combed through the evidence for six years until he had enough to put the suspects on trial. His work, combined with the evidence from Dixon and his Cambodian colleagues, prompted by the persistent calls from the Howes family, the British Embassy here in Cambodia and MAG, all had the desired effect when the suspects were arrested at the back end of last year and earlier this year.
12 years after the crime, this volume of evidence and pressure has finally paid off. The guilty are behind bars and its a warning to all that there's no time frame on murder.

October 15, 2008 at 5:06 PM  

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