The Phnom Penh Military Court on Tuesday opened the trial of deposed first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh and three top aides on charges that they conspired with outlawed Khmer Rouge hard-liners to topple the coalition government.
Prosecutor Sao Sok said the prince and his generals plotted a coup d’etat backed by thousands of rebel troops smuggled into the capital and armed with illegally obtained weapons.
Sao Sok charged the four had conspired to “topple the legal government by the use of military force,” and had been involved in negotiations with the hard-liners since 1996 to enlist their support in overthrowing the prince’s coalition partners.
As in the prince’s first trial on March 4, at which he was convicted of illegally purchasing and transporting weapons, no defense was offered. The prince and top resistance generals Nhiek Bun Chhay and Serey Kosal have refused to recognize the court’s jurisdiction.
The fourth defendant, General Chao Sambath, was believed executed in the wake of the July fighting, although his death has never been publicly acknowledged by the government.
The four are charged with violating five articles of three different laws—a 1994 statute outlawing the Khmer Rouge, a 1992 criminal code and a 1981 decree law relating to military offenses.
The most severe sentence available under the laws is the death penalty. But with capital punishment outlawed by the 1993 Constitution, the defendants face a maximum of life imprisonment if found guilty.
Military Court Judge Ney Thol is expected to deliver his judgment today, and few observers anticipate anything other than a guilty verdict.
For the prosecution, Sao Sok charged the four had secretly negotiated with the guerrillas in Anlong Veng, forging an alliance with nominal Khmer Rouge leader Khieu Samphan.
In his mission to woo the rebels, Sao Sok asserted, the prince had illegally dispatched military officials to Anlong Veng to negotiate with the hard-liners, using an RCAF helicopter without gaining permission from the chief of staff.
Sao Sok charged the accused had “actively sought out Khmer Rouge forces and brought them to the capital….along with weapons to be hidden in Phnom Penh while awaiting the attack.”
Piles of confiscated heavy weaponry and ammunition were displayed as evidence at the trial, held in the same Defense Ministry auditorium as the prince’s first trial.
A montage of photographs depicted other military hardware too large for exhibition in the courtroom, such as tanks, armored personnel carriers and rocket launchers—apparent evidence of the prince’s alleged attempts to illegally arm his rebel allies.
Twenty-two witnesses, including the prince’s former top military adviser, General Tum Sambol, were sworn in at the beginning of the first day’s proceedings. Two witnesses were absent.
The witnesses, mainly former Funcinpec military and police commanders, said Nhiek Bun Chhay, the former deputy chief of RCAF general staff, told them to prepare for the arrival of Khmer Rouge troops to assist in a planned military strike on CPP forces. Several witnesses also testified the prince had provided arms for use in the planned assault.
Tum Sambol, now military adviser to the prince’s replacement, First Prime Minister Ung Huot, said that prior to the fighting in July, Nhiek Bun Chhay ordered troops to Tang Kasaing military base, west of the capital.
While acknowledging the prince had made contact with the hard-line rebels, however, Tum Sambol said he could not be wholly sure if the rebel troops brought to Tang Kasaing had come from Anlong Veng.
One witness, Em Ratha, who described himself as a former Khmer Rouge commander from Division 603, testified he attended meetings with Nhiek Bun Chhay at which plans were made for a hit on Hun Sen’s Takhmau base.
“I was ordered to prepare for an attack on the house of the second prime minister” Em Ratha testified. “The plan was to attack on June 16 or 17, but it was postponed until July 5 and 6.”
Sao Sok traced the alleged plot back to a January 1996 meeting at which the prince reportedly told Funcinpec forces they must do “whatever is necessary to achieve a balance with the police and military forces of the CPP.”
This, he alleged, had resulted in the prince beginning negotiations with the Khmer Rouge in Anlong Veng with the intention of arming them and bringing them to Phnom Penh to overthrow Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“Prince Ranariddh, as the ringleader, and his group acted against national security and the well-being of the country to serve the interests of the Democratic Kampuchea [Khmer Rouge] group, acting against the order of the higher authorities,” Sao Sok told the court.
Legal experts Tuesday took issue with several points of the case, including the assertion that the prince had “acted against the order of higher authorities,” as charged by Sao Sok.
The references to disobedience to higher authorities, or failure to seek their permission, appear to stem from counts faced by the defendants under the 1981 decree law on military offenses.
“If the charge is of going against a superior’s orders, then who is superior to the first prime minister, as co-commander of the armed forces?” a legal expert queried.
Also, lawyers questioned whether the decree law remains in effect, given subsequent statutes covering similar legal territory.
“Perhaps they don’t feel confident about getting him on the Khmer Rouge law,” one analyst said. “In my opinion, it would have been much better legally for them to have left it out.”
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