Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Detained Candlelight Leader Did Not Authorize Bad Checks, Lawyer says

Candlelight Party Vice President Thach Setha speaks at the party’s office in Phnom Penh on April 4, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Candlelight Party Vice President Thach Setha speaks at the party’s office in Phnom Penh on April 4, 2022. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

Candlelight party vice president Thach Setha did not complete or intend to issue the bad checks which led to his arrest, says his lawyer Sam Sokhong. 

After Thach’s arrest and pre-trial detention on January 16, government-aligned media Fresh News published a court warrant alleging Setha issued five bad checks in 2019 and had failed to show up for questioning at the court in 2021. Setha claims he never received a court summons and has filed an appeal against his detention, his lawyer said. 

But Setha had indeed received a loan in 2016 from Rin Chhay pawnshop collateralized with land titles to his own property, his lawyer said. He added he “did not know the reason” his client, an opposition party lawmaker, took out loans from a pawnshop whose owner has ties to CPP elites.

Setha then signed a series of checks with the date and amount left blank, which he gave to the pawnshop to fill in and receive monthly payments from him. But he asked to stop paying the pawnshop by check after he was removed from his position as a National Assembly CNRP lawmaker following the CNRP’s 2017 court dissolution, his lawyer said.

“He [Setha] had paid through checks monthly, and when he had no salary, he asked the owner of the pawnshop to pay in cash privately, but there were still four or five checks left at the pawnshop,” Sokhong said.

Setha received $18,000 from the pawnshop, using five land titles from properties in his name but used by the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Community, of which he was president. The loan was intended to support the association’s activities, Setha’s lawyer said. 

Setha began paying back the loan privately but requested a delay of repayment during the Covid-19 pandemic. Setha had lost contact with the pawnshop since then and still owes the company an unspecified amount, Sokhong said. 

The pawnshop sued Setha for fraud in 2018, on the grounds Setha had stopped repaying his loan. A court investigated and then dropped the case because Setha had given land titles to the pawnshop as collateral. But in 2019, the pawnshop filed a criminal complaint specifically citing the five remaining checks, Sokhong said.

“The same case was filed as a lawsuit already, they can’t use the same offense to sue again” said Sokong, citing the legal principle of res judicata, which states courts cannot prosecute someone for a crime they were previously acquitted of.

Plang Sophal, deputy prosecutor and Phnom Penh municipal court spokesperson, could not be reached for comment.

A man who answered a phone number listed for Rin Chhay pawnshop said he was the nephew of the company’s owner Hay Vanrin, and referred questions to the pawnshop’s lawyer Ly Tith Bonamy. 

Bonamy claimed Setha had signed a contract with the pawnshop guaranteeing repayment through checks but had committed fraud in two ways because he did not have money in his bank account and used land titles for properties he did not own. (Setha’s lawyer said his client is the owner of all five properties).

Bonamy claimed the 2018 fraud complaint had only focused on the land titles and the 2019 complaint filed by the pawnshop related to the checks. A 2018 Fresh News article about the fraud complaint mentions land titles but not checks. 

“It’s a new case related to issuing checks without money and my client filed a complaint in 2019 accusing [Setha] of failing to follow obligations to negotiable instruments and payment transactions,” Tith Bonamy said. “It is a different offense.”

Touch Than, secretary general at the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Community, an association supporting ethnic Khmer originating from Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, confirmed that Setha pawned land titles for five properties used by the association. He said he did know how the money was used.

All the properties had land titles in Setha’s name, Than said.

“We didn’t object because he had just temporarily used them [pawned the land titles], and we never thought they [the pawnshop] would file a complaint,” Than said. “No community members complained.”

If there was truly an issue then the court should have detained Setha after the pawnshop’s complaint was originally filed in 2019 or else the pawnshop could have claimed the land titles in their possession to complete the payment, Than said.

Bonamy, the pawnshop lawyer, said he could not provide further comment: “I can’t detail the case because it is under court investigation.”