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Thursday, July 10, 2008

Thailand's foreign minister resigns as battering of government continues

BANGKOK, Thailand: Thailand's foreign minister resigned Thursday after being accused of jeopardizing the country's claims to land near an ancient Cambodian temple, as a raft of court cases and street protests continued to batter the five-month-old government.

"Even though I did not do anything wrong, I would like to show responsibility by resigning," Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama said.

The resignation takes effect July 14.

The Thai Constitutional Court ruled Tuesday that Noppadon acted unconstitutionally when he endorsed Cambodia's application to have the Preah Vihear temple registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site without first consulting Parliament on the matter. Critics fear the endorsement undermines Thailand's claim to land near the temple, which is on the Thai-Cambodian border.

"I would like to insist that the action of the ministry did not compromise Thailand's sovereignty," Noppadon said. He also denied anti-government protesters' claims that he endorsed Cambodia's UNESCO bid in exchange for business concessions.

Several high-profile court rulings this week have targeted top officials in the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.

The Constitutional Court disqualified Public Health Minister Chaiya Sasomsup from office Wednesday, for violating asset disclosure rules by failing to fully declare his wife's shareholdings.

In another case, the Supreme Court issued an arrest warrant Wednesday for Wattana Asavahame, chairman of one of the coalition parties, after he failed to appear in court to hear a verdict on corruption charges against him over a water treatment project.

The announcement of the verdict was rescheduled for Aug. 18, the court said. If convicted, Wattana faces up to 10 years in prison.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court banned a former parliamentary speaker from politics for five years for electoral fraud. The verdict could lead to the eventual dissolution of the People's Power Party if the Constitutional Court decides that Yongyuth Tiyapairat committed the fraud to benefit his party.

Finance Minister Surapong Suebwonglee, deputy leader of Samak's party, said the prime minister remained confident the coalition would weather the political storm. He also dismissed speculation that the government might dissolve Parliament and call a fresh election more than three years ahead of schedule.

The coalition took power earlier this year after December polls.

Demonstrators have disrupted traffic in pockets of the capital daily since May demanding that Samak and his government resign, calling him a proxy for former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was toppled in a 2006 military coup.

Samak denies the accusation, saying the protesters are trying to undermine his democratically elected government.

A number of senior Thaksin loyalists serve in Samak's administration. Before his appointment as foreign minister, Noppadon was Thaksin's top lawyer and spokesman while the former prime minister was in exile after his ouster.

Sondhi Limthongkul, a key protest leader, had earlier alleged that Noppadon gave up some territory near the temple in exchange for his "boss" — Thaksin — getting concessions to develop a casino complex on Cambodia's Koh Kong island.

Noppadon said in his resignation speech that the talks of "conflicts of interest are false."

Thaksin faces a slew of court cases charging him with corruption and abuse of power.

The Supreme Court heard testimony Tuesday from the first witnesses in the trial of Thaksin and his wife on charges related to her purchase of Bangkok real estate during his time as prime minister. The court is to rule July 31 on separate charges of tax evasion against his wife.
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Brothers accused in violent Asian gang spree arrested

Two brothers from an Asian gang accused in a series of murders in one of the largest death penalty cases in state history have been arrested in the Phillipines and are awaiting extradition, police announced this morning.

Detectives have been tracking Marvin, 35, and Pierre Mercado, 32, for more than a decade. The Mercado brothers are members of a violent Asian street gang in Los Angeles. They are accused in a string of crimes, including murder, burglary, robbery and attempted murder, dating to the early 1990s, police said.

In 1995, the LAPD created a task force to find the men and have focused on the group for months, facing cultural barriers, language issues, and a strict code of silence.

"The FBI has been seeking the Mercado brothers overseas on behalf of the LAPD for several years," said Salvador Hernandez, the assistant director in charge of the FBI in Los Angeles. "It is gratifying to know that some of the victims of their alleged crimes will have the chance to see them returned to the U.S. to face prosecution. The FBI and the LAPD work collaboratively to capture fugitives that flee Los Angeles - and justice."

Police said the case began in December 1993, when a fracas broke out at a Los Angeles pool hall, inciting a turf war began between two rival gangs. During the brawl, which was caught on surveillance tape, the two gangs got into a shootout. After the police studied the tape, they found out that Chung Lewong Yang attacked members of the rival gang,including one of their members, Lea Mek, who died at scene. Following the shooting, police believe the Mercado brothers and their gang declared war on Wah Ching.
The pool hall brawl marked the beginning of a three year crime spree by the Asian gang, who had vowed to seek revenge, officials said.

During an 18-month stretch between 1995 and 1996, police connected the Asian gang to a dozen murders:

* On April 14, 1995, near Valerio Street and Van Nuys Boulevard, members of the Asian gang shot and killed two rival Valerio Street gang members, Armando Estrada and Eugene Alonzo in an apartment complex.

* On August 1, 1995, Cheng Peng, Paul Vu, and Ben Liao were driving on the I-10 freeway near San Gabriel, when they were attacked by the Asian gang in a brutal drive by shooting. All three victims died at scene.

* On September 20, 1995, Jon Gregory, his wife, and two children were asleep in their home, when members of the Asian gang forced their way into the home and shot and killed Jon, while he tried to protect his family.

On May 30, 1996, officers rounded up 19 members of the Asian gang. However, the police did not have enough evidence to hold two of the top leaders, Sothi Mehn and Marvin Mercado.

In 1997, police finally got a break when an informant came forward and the Deputy District Attorney filed murder warrants for Sothi Mehn and Marvin Mercado. Mehn was captured in Phnom Penh, Cambodia by members of the Cambodian Army. His arrest was direct result of a tip from "America's Most Wanted."

Seven of the gang members have been convicted and are serving life sentences. It was the largest multi-defendant death penalty case in California history. During the trial, the state's most important witness, an Asian gang member was testifying in court, when his father was murdered in his home in San Jose by the rival gang, in an attempt to dissuade his testimony.

Investigators found out that Marvin and Pierre Mercado were hiding out in the Philippines. LAPD detectives along with the FBI, State Department, and the Philippine Government captured the two brothers in Manila in September 2007.

Currently, Marvin and Pierre are being detained in the Philippines pursuant to immigration violations. Their extradition has been pending a habeas corpus hearing. Detectives from the LAPD have recently travelled to the Philippines to assist the FBI and Philippine authorities in extraditing the Mercado brothers back to Los Angeles to face trial. Marvin Mercado has been indicted by a grand jury for six counts of murder and other charges. Pierre Mercado faces attempt murder charges, all stemming from their days as gang members.

When Marvin and Pierre Mercado are returned to Los Angeles to face trial, the Asian Boyz crime spree will finally come to an end. Despite the unusually long habeas corpus hearing in the Philippines, we are confident that the Mercados will be returned by the authorities there to face justice. This case epitomizes the Los Angeles Police Department's commitment to pursue criminal gang members no matter how many years have passed, and even if they are half a world away.
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Former Khmer Rouge leader healthy enough to stay in jail: officials

The former Khmer Rouge head of state is in stable condition, despite his recent hospitalization for a stroke, and can remain in the custody of Cambodia's genocide tribunal, tribunal officials said Thursday.

Khieu Samphan, 77, is one of five former senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge regime who are awaiting trial for their alleged involvement in the atrocities that occurred when their ultra-communist movement ruled Cambodia from 1975-79. Some 1.7 million Cambodians died from starvation, disease and overwork or were executed during that time.

The tribunal has charged Khieu Samphan with crimes against humanity and war crimes, and has held him since November. His trial is expected to begin later this year.

"Every day they [doctors] continue to advise us that he's fine, stable and able to continue staying in detention," said Peter Foster, spokesman for the United Nations-assisted tribunal.

Many fear that he and other defendants, some in poor health, may not live long enough to stand trial. Khieu Samphan was hospitalized for two weeks — from May 21 to June 5 — after his stroke.

His defence team has requested that he be temporarily released to receive care from his family at home, according to a report on the tribunal's website. The report quoted the defence as warning that Khieu Samphan's "conditions may progressively decline until the point of no return."

Khieu Samphan's defence team was not available to provide comment on the report.

In addition to a request for temporary release, the former leader is also appealing his detention.

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Locals threaten to take over disputed Preah Vihear Temple

Do Thais who are living in Si Sa Ket province want to taste as Cambodian lives? Yes you can live in Cambodia for a while, we will send some of former Khmer Rouge soldiers to govern you and taking care all of you.

A group of residents in Si Sa Ket province have threatened to take over the disputed temple of Preah Vihear within a month in an expression of their anger over its listing as a World Heritage site.

The group - calling themselves the Council of Saha Drammic I-san and staging a protest close to the temple over the past weeks - yesterday declared they would take over the temple unless the authorities removed some 500 Cambodians from the area.

They also called on the governments of Thailand and Cambodia to speed up the demarcation of the border within 30 days to mark a clear division of sovereignty.

The government should make the Preah Vihear issue a national priority to reclaim the Hindu temple from Cambodia, as the then foreign minister Thanat Khoman reserved to the right to do so at the United Nations in 1962, they said.

The government should call a national referendum of Thai people, who have the right of national sovereignty over the temple," they said in a statement.

The Preah Vihear ruling by the International Court of Justice in 1962 stated that the temple was situated in Cambodia, but many Thais believe that it belongs to Thailand as the then government announced its disagreement with the decision.

The group blamed the current government for causing loss of Thai sovereignty, as the Cabinet failed to block Cambodia's application for the site's listing.

The Constitution Court on Tuesday ruled that the joint communiqu้ which Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama signed with Cambodia's Deputy Prime Minister Sok An to support the application was unconstitutional.

Senators and the opposition plan to impeach the foreign minister and the Cabinet. The Democrat Party's Sathit Wongnongteoy yesterday sought details of the Cabinet's resolution in order to identify all the officials involved.

Noppadon is due to arrive back from London today. Reporters at the ministry saw the minister's close aide packing his belongings at the office, suggesting he might step down.

Interior Minister Chalerm Yoobamrung said the government had done nothing wrong, since the Cabinet had withdrawn the joint communiqu้ of support before the Constitution Court's ruling.

The People's Alliance for Democracy has called for the entire nation to stand against Noppadon.

Army chief Anupong Paochinda made a plea to people to calm down, as fanning nationalism over the temple might jeopardise relations with Cambodia.

"We should allow reason and the law to settle this case, not emotion," he said.
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Preah Vihear to attract more tourists to Cambodia as World Heritage Site status

PHNOM PENH, July 10 (Xinhua) -- The Cambodian Association of Travel Agencies (CATA) expected that the Preah Vihear Temple in the eponymous province of the country will draw more tourists, as it has become a World Heritage Site, national media said Thursday.

"Just the novelty factor of the Preah Vihear Temple being on the list (of the World Herigage Site), it will attract more tourists from the world than before," CATA president Ho Vandy told local newspaper the Mekong Times.

However, urgent work needs to be done on the temple's tourism infrastructure and the private sector is ready to cooperate, he said.

Hang Soth, director general of the recently formed Preah Vihear National Authority (PVNA), said that the government is developing the infrastructure in the region.

"We are developing all sectors including roads, restaurants and accommodation for tourists," he added.

Last year, PVNA reported that about 300 to 400 domestic and foreign tourists visited the temple each day.

Most of the tourists currently approach the temple from the Thai side as Cambodia lacks adequate road access.

The Preah Vihear Temple, which straddles the Thai-Cambodian border atop the Dangrek Mountain, was listed as a World Heritage Site on July 7 by UNESCO's World Heritage Committee.

The typical Khmer-style architecture was build in C.D. 10 to 12and is now situated some 117 km to the north of Phnom Penh.
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