A Candlelight commune chief-elect was released from custody on Wednesday, a day after he was arrested for alleged robbery and documents emerged that he had been convicted in the same case in 2014.
Nhim Sarom, who is the commune chief-elect for Kampong Thom’s Chamna Loeu commune according to preliminary National Election Committee (NEC) results, was arrested on Tuesday for alleged robbery in a case dating back to 2002.
A court verdict then emerged the same day, which was verified by a court official, showing that Sarom had been convicted in absentia in 2014 on the robbery charge and been sentenced to five years in prison.
Say Veasna, Kampong Thom court spokesperson, said the Candlelight member was not sent to prison on Tuesday and was presented in court on Wednesday where his request for bail was granted. He will have to appear before court for any further hearings, Veasna added.
Veasna said Sarom could motion the court to challenge his conviction in absentia and the court would follow the relevant procedures.
Candlelight members on Tuesday said the case related to a dispute in 2002 when Sarom allegedly took some machinery from a person who owed him money and that the matter had been resolved with the help of local officials.
Veasna said Sarom thought that he had resolved the complaint and assumed the complaint was withdrawn but that was incorrect.
The provincial court also released a statement of the same information relayed by Veasna, adding that the prosecutor also informed Sarom on Tuesday about the 2014 conviction.
Sarom, who spoke to VOD after his release, said he was questioned by the court on Tuesday and Wednesday morning, after which a hearing was held over his bail plea.
About the 2002 dispute, Sarom said he was not the one who was owed money, but that he went with three people, one of whom was owed money. He only accompanied the group and did not commit any violence nor was he directly involved in the monetary dispute.
Sarom said he never absconded and did not recollect if he had ever received a summons for court hearings in the past. He was relieved after being released Wednesday and was bracing for a legal battle.
“I think I only got part of [justice] but it still has to be settled in the future,” he said. “I don’t know what this case is really about. I still think it is an implementation of the sentence from the past.”
Sun Chanthy, who heads the party in Kampong Thom, said that Sarom was first taken to prison on Tuesday, then taken back to the provincial police headquarters and held there overnight. Chanthy said it was a welcome move to release Sarom on bail.
“The arrest of Sarom, the Candlelight Party`s newly-elected candidate, by authorities at this time is a way of political threat to break up the spirit of activists in the opposition Candlelight Party,” he said.
Chanthy said it was surprising that Sarom was never arrested earlier because his whereabouts were always known.
Sarom is one of four potential commune chiefs for the Candlelight Party after the June commune election. He was a deputy commune chief for the CNRP in 2017 and a councilor for the Sam Rainsy Party in 2012.
Officials did not immediately say why Sarom was not arrested after his conviction. Khieu Sopheak, spokesperson for the Interior Ministry which manages the work of commune councils, could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
NEC spokesperson Hang Puthea said the matter was private and that the election body would decide what to do with Sarom’s case based on the court and other authorities. The committee would assign the next person on the Candlelight list to head the commune if Sarom could not assume office, he added.
“If there is written information [from a relevant authority], NEC will organize accordingly but if there is no written information, NEC will still keep his name because sometimes it is an accusation but it is not really that he was found guilty,” he said.