Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

First Day of Candlelight Leader Thach Setha Trial Cut Short Due to His “Bad Mood”

Candlelight Party Vice President Thach Setha speaks at the party’s office in Phnom Penh on April 4, 2022, before he was arrested for allegedly writing bad checks. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
Candlelight Party Vice President Thach Setha speaks at the party’s office in Phnom Penh on April 4, 2022, before he was arrested for allegedly writing bad checks. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

A Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge decided to end the first day of the trial of Candlelight Party Vice President Thach Setha, charged for allegedly writing bad checks, early because of Setha’s “bad mood.”  

“The defendant does not look to be in good health according to his answers. The trial should be delayed until another time,” presiding judge Chhun Davi said in court Wednesday.

The judge’s decision came after a tense exchange in which prosecutor Plang Sophal questioned Setha about bounced checks he allegedly issued to a pawnshop owner named Hay Vanrin. 

“I dare you to call him [Vanrin] to swear [that I issued these checks] and then I would be willing to remain in prison,” Setha said to the prosecutor. 

Sethea was arrested in January for allegedly issuing five bad checks in 2019 and for failing to appear before an investigative judge in 2021 following a criminal complaint filed by Vanrin. Candlelight Party leaders said the arrest was politically motivated

The case dates back to 2016, when Setha received an $18,000 loan from Rin Chhay Pawnshop, collateralized with land titles under his name. A lawyer representing the pawnshop owners claimed a number of the checks he issued were fraudulent because he did not have the funds in his account. Setha’s lawyers deny this, saying the checks were appropriately collateralized and settled in an earlier court case.  

The charges are based on Article 231 of the Law on Negotiable Instruments and Payment Transactions; violations of the law carry a maximum penalty of a 10 million riel ($2,437) fine and a five year prison sentence. 

“I cannot accept the charge because I never issued checks in 2019,” Setha said in court Wednesday.

During the two-hour hearing, Setha admitted to making two contracts for loans in 2011 and 2016. He said he received $18,000 from Rin Chhay pawnshop, and used land titles for properties in his name as collateral. 

A police’s truck transported Thach Setha and other prisoners to Phnom Penh Municipal Court on August 16, 2023. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

He signed checks back in 2016 to be used for the loan repayments, but said he left the signature and dates blank. The checks were to be used for monthly installment payments of about $1000, he said. 

But following the dissolution of the opposition CNRP by the Supreme Court in 2017, he was removed from his position as a senator. Now that he was facing financial issues without his senator salary, he asked the pawnshop owner to no longer use the checks and instead he would pay back the loan in private cash payments. 

“I had never issued [these five] checks after 2016. They were fake checks because I didn’t write the amount of money and dates,” Setha told the court. “I agree it was my check and my signature but the dates weren’t [written] by me,” he said. 

Setha said he couldn’t remember how many checks he gave the pawnshop.

Davi said in court Wednesday that five bad checks were issued from June to October 2019, each check for 4,230,200 riels, about $1000.

Setha’s defense lawyer Chuoung Choungy asked the court to provide the original five checks, the main evidence used to accuse his client of the crime and detain him in jail for seven months.

“A copy of the checks cannot be used as evidence to accuse my client,” he said. “If there are no original checks, that means there is no evidence.”

Tim Sopheap, a lawyer representing the owners of Rin Chhay Pawnshop, said that FTB bank had confirmed that five checks were issued by Setha when his account did not have sufficient funds. 

FTB Bank did not immediately return an emailed request for comment about Sopheap’s statement and the case. 

Candlelight spokesperson Kimsour Phearith said that people should not be imprisoned for civil cases related to issuing checks.

“More or less, politics are involved here because he [Setha] is a politician that has criticized the government on topics related to social issues and border affairs,” he said.

Ruling CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan did not answer the phone or respond to a Telegram message request for comment from CamboJA.