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Detained Thais Face Spy Charges in Cambodian Court

Veera Somkwamkid (C), former leader of Thailand's People's Alliance for Democracy, is escorted by Cambodian police at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Jan 12, 2011.

Veera Somkwamkid (C), former leader of Thailand's People's Alliance for Democracy, is escorted by Cambodian police at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Jan 12, 2011.

A prominent Thai nationalist activist and his aide faced questioning in a Cambodian court Wednesday on espionage charges. The two are among seven Thais, including a lawmaker, charged with illegally entering Cambodia in a case that threatens to bring a simmering diplomatic dispute to a boil yet again.

Veera Somkwamkid and his secretary, Ratree Pipatanapaiboon, are accused of gathering information that could pose a threat to Cambodian security - a charge that carries up to 10 years in prison.

The two were arrested last month for trespassing into a Cambodian military zone. They were traveling with five other Thais, many of whom belong to a splinter group of the nationalist People's Alliance for Democracy. The so-called "Yellow Shirt" activists have been pushing the Thai government to adopt a strong stance with Cambodian on border disputes.

Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has appealed to Phnom Penh to free the detainees, but Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has said the courts must decide their fate.

Lao Mong Hay, a Cambodian political analyst living in Oxford, England, says the Cambodian judicial system is not independent, and the likelihood of a fair trial for the Thais is slim.

"It's still a sort of communist judiciary, which is under government control through the ruling party," he says. "Almost all judges are members of the ruling party. And the party has strict discipline, so any deviation from the party line would be reprimanded."

Thai nationalists say the group was investigating claims of Cambodian land encroachment into Thailand, and that they were kidnapped by Cambodian soldiers. The loosely demarcated border between the longtime rivals stirs nationalistic fervor in both countries. A dispute over the ancient Preah Vihear temple sparked clashes between Cambodian and Thai troops in 2008.

The U.N. cultural agency UNESCO recognizes the Hindu temple as Cambodian, but some Thai activists say it belongs to their country.

Lao Mong Hay says Cambodia has fewer diplomatic allies than Thailand and would not fair well if it raised its concerns in an international forum, like the United Nations. Instead, he says the Cambodian government appears to be using the Thais' arrest as a political diversion.

"Deep down, [it is] just to aid the tension and divert public opinion from the eastern border," he says.

That's the eastern border with Vietnam, an equally sensitive topic for Cambodian nationalists concerned that Hanoi is expanding its territory by secretly moving border markers. That issue receives little official scrutiny by Phnom Penh, which criticis say is a sign of Vietnam's strong influence in Cambodian politics.

The Thai border is a different situation. The current Thai case has drawn widespread media attention in Cambodia. And top border negotiators from both countries met in Phnom Penh this week, pledging to speed up the demarcation process despite the tensions.