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Men accused of using Islamic school as front to launder money

A Cambodian court will try five men next month for membership in the regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and links to al-Qaeda, RFA's Khmer service reports.

The men, who were arrested in May 2003 ahead of a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, were named as Abdul Azi Haji Chiming, 35, and Muhammad Yalalu Mading, 41, both of Thai nationality, and a 40-year-old Egyptian man, Esam Muhammad Khird Ali. They were arrested by Cambodian police in separate locations on May 25, 2003.

A fourth suspect, Cambodian Muslim Sman Ismael, 23, will stand trial alongside them, while a fifth, Egyptian Rousha Yasser, 33, will be tried in absentia, Phnom Penh municipal judge Ham Mengse told reporters.

"The trial will take place on Feb. 2 at 8 a.m. according to our recent schedule," Ham Mengse told RFA's Phnom Penh correspondent. "I am insisting that the U.S embassy provide concrete evidence against these suspects."

Cambodian authorities say the men are members of a JI cell that operated out of the Om al-Qoura Islamic school on the outskirts of the capital Phnom Penh before the police raided it in May 2003. The school was allegedly being used as a front to channel al-Qaeda money into the country from Saudi Arabia.

"I have written letters to all authorities involved with the case to provide me with more reports and documents that would be useful for me to make judgment," the judge said.

JI has been blamed for a series of attacks, including last year's 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people and an August blast at a luxury hotel in Jakarta that left 12 dead.

Esam Muhammed Khird Ali was arrested on a highway near Phnom Penh on his way to Kampong Chnang Province, while the two Thai Muslims were arrested at an Islamic school in Kandal Province near Phnom Penh.

Keou Sopha, the lawyer for the three men, said he had been informed about the trial date Monday. "I think the trial for them is better than being kept in jail illegally," he said.

Keou Sopha has already called for the release of the three, who have now been detained well beyond the six-month maximum allowed by Cambodia's penal code for prisoners awaiting trial.

"I think if there is a lack of evidence at the trial, my client must be released," he told RFA.

Ham Meng Se said he had had no reply yet to formal requests for evidence from the U.S. Embassy. An embassy official contacted by RFA declined to elaborate on the case, saying it was a domestic matter for Cambodia judiciary.

Cambodia's legal processes are modeled on the French system, under which the presiding judge leads the proceedings and can even take over the investigation, requesting more information from witnesses and police, and conducting in-person interviews with defendants and witnesses alike.

Other judges play a prominent part in gathering evidence following the arrest of the defendant. Investigating Judge Ou Bunna told RFA Dec. 16 that he had done a full investigation and passed his findings to the prosecutor for a final decision on whether or not to go ahead with a trial.

Ham Meng Se has since requested further information from police in Kandal Province and a Phnom Penh bank regarding the sources of funding for the Muslim school in the province, and potential connections with international terrorist organizations, he told RFA.

Most Cambodian Muslims belong to the Cham ethnic minorities, who make up less than 5 percent of the country's some 13 million population. While this group is traditionally fairly moderate, there are concerns that the country's relative lawlessness will encourage international terror organizations to set up bases in Cambodia.#####


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