– By Chalida Tajaroensuk, Executive Director, People’s Empowerment Foundation (PEF), Thailand –
On 25 May 2003, the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh reported that the Cambodian Government had arrested two Muslim Ustas from Yala Province, Thailand. Ustas Abdul Azi Haji Chiming and Ustas Mohammed Yalaludin Mading were suspected of having been involved in acts of terrorism, specifically suspected of plotting the bombing of the Embassies of the United Kingdom (UK) and the United States of America (USA). The two Ustas were brought before a Cambodian Court on 28 May 2003.
Abdul Azi Haji Chiming and Mohammed Yalaludin Mading
The two Ustas worked at the UM-Al-Qura Institute, a Muslim religion school, in Kangsadan Province, Cambodia. The initial two years they only worked as teachers, but after two years Abdul Azi was promoted to be the school treasurer.
Suspected of plotting a terrorist attack
Hambali, who was regarded a key member of Jemaah Islamiah, an Asian militant group suspected of having ties with Al-Qaeda, was arrested in Thailand in 2003. He was suspected of being involved with the 2002 Bali bombings. He was also suspected of plotting the earlier mentioned terrorist attack on the UK and US Embassies in Phnom Penh, and convicted in absentia.
Abdul Azi was arrested on charges of transferring money to Hambali, while Mohammed Yalalludin was arrested on charges of communicating, by mobile phone, with Hambali. Both were given life sentences under Article 3 of the Law on Punishment of the Acts of Terrorism.
Terrorists or victims?
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) of Thailand went to observe the trial at the Criminal Court. They attempted to assist the two Ustas, but failed to do so.
The wives of the two Ustas came to FORUM-ASIA to ask for help. It caused a lot of discussion, and was a difficult decision for the organisation. At the time, there was an ASEAN Ministers Meeting (AMM) being held in Singapore, and rumours soon circulated that FORUM-ASIA was going to support convicted terrorists.
Obviously this would greatly affect FORUM-ASIA, its work, but also its donors. Eventually, the organisation, under the leadership of the then Executive Director, Anselmo Lee, decided that I would conduct a fact-finding mission on the condition that the trip would be supported by a diplomat.
I succeeded to convince Ambassador Surapong Jayanama, from Thailand, to lead the trip. The renowned Thai Buddhist Nun, Khun Mae Chee Sansanee, one Muslim lawyer and two family members of the Ustas also joined.
The fact-finding mission
The fact-finding team met with many different stakeholders in Cambodia, including organisations, lawyers, international and local non-governmental organisations (NGOs), the Thai Embassy, and Muslim groups. And also visited the two Ustas in jail.
From our fact-finding, we found that the two Ustas had indeed been involved, but had not had the intentions they were suspected of. Abdul Azi had indeed transferred money to Hambali, but only because Hambali had left 3,000 US Dollars with him before going on a trip to the provinces. He had asked for the transfer several times, since he needed the money while on his trip. Mohammed Mayaludin had indeed bought the mobile from Hambali, for a very cheap price. Both denied knowing that the person who came to stay with them at the UM-Al-Qura Institute was in fact Hambali. Hambali called to and from the institute many times using an old number, which had once belonged to Mohammed Mayaludin.
FORUM-ASIA decided to take on the case. It wrote a report on what had happened, and submitted it to various Government Departments. For several years, I would visit the wives of Abdul Azi and Mohammed Mayaludin, and would meet with the Thai Embassy in Cambodia. Upon return from my trips, I would visit the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bangkok and update them on my findings.
We brought a Cambodian lawyer to Yala to update the Muslim community about the case, and also brought him to meet with Cambodian prisoners in Thailand, as well as with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Thailand.
After six years the Thai Government succeeded in realising an exchange, where the two Ustas were traded for two Cambodians who had been sentenced to death in Thailand. Abdul Azi and Mohammed Mayaludin were sent back to Thailand on 7 July 2009.
Now, years later, Abdul Azi works in Trangkanu, Malaysia, while Mohammed Mayaludin teaches Islamic studies at a Muslim school in Yala.
FORUM-ASIA received a thank you letter from the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs in June 2009.
Chalida Tajaroensuk is the Founder and Executive Director of the People’s Empowerment Foundation (PEF), based in Thailand. She started her human rights activism when she was a student. She has worked for many years for various human rights organisations, among them FORUM-ASIA.