A Cambodian court on Tuesday sentenced 11 opposition party activists to prison terms of up to 20 years on insurrection charges for participating in a protest that turned violent, prompting the defendants’ lawyers and rights groups to denounce the harsh penalties.
After judges at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Meach Sovannara, media director of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and 10 others, they were sent to the notorious Prey Sar prison.
Chhoung Chou Ngy, a CNRP activist lawyer, called the convictions a great injustice for his clients.
“The court convictions were groundless,” he said, adding that he was among the eight defense lawyers who did not participate in the trial, because he wasn’t informed well in advance and received notice of the trial only yesterday. Only one lawyer attended the hearing.
He went on to say that Meach Sovannara, one of his clients, did not commit any crimes.
“During the trial, the plaintiffs didn’t say that my client committed a crime,” he said, adding that he would ask Meach Sovannara if he wanted to appeal the verdict.
CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith said his party was monitoring the situation closely.
“We are very unhappy with the court conviction, because they [the defendants] didn’t commit any crimes,” he said, adding that the CNRP would continue discussing the situation with its lawyers to decide whether to take further action.
The opposition party activists were arrested after a demonstration in July 2014, which resulted in violent clashes between protesters and security forces in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park.
The activists were taken into custody as the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was holding talks with the CNRP to end a year-long dispute over the outcome of the general elections in July 2013, which the opposition claims was rigged in favor of the CPP.
Yem Ponhearith noted that it had been a year since the two political parties agreed to ease tensions between them, but now they appeared to be reversing course.
“We will use the culture of dialogue to seek solutions,” he said. “We don’t want to win or lose.”
However, the CNRP did not have any plans to discuss the cases of the convicted activists with Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“The CNRP is studying ways to resolve the problem,” he added.
No acts of violence committed
Meach Sovannara, Ouer Narith, a CNRP official at the Public Affairs Department, and Khin Chamreun, chief of Phnom Penh’s CNRP Youth Movement, received 20-year sentences for participating in and directing an insurrectionary movement, according to the Cambodian human rights group Licadho.
The other eight – Sum Puthy, CNRP Chbar Ampov district council member; Neang Sokhun, Chbar Ampov district youth leader; San Kimheng, Tuol Kork district youth leader; youth members Tep Narin, San Seihak, and An Batham; and CNRP supporters Ouk Pich Samnang and Ke Khim – received seven-year sentences for participating in an insurrectionary movement.
None of the plaintiffs at the trial identified any of the 11 defendants as having committed an act of violence during the event, Licadho said in a statement.
Licadho also pointed out that when judges unexpectedly called for closing arguments during the trial, the defendants requested a delay until their lawyers could attend. But the judges denied their request and announced the verdicts after only 15 minutes of deliberation.
“Police entered the courtroom as soon as the judges went to deliberate the verdict,” said Naly Pilorge, director of Licadho. “This makes it clear that this was a show trial with a predetermined ending, apparently set up only to intimidate the CNRP following this weekend’s events in Svay Rieng [province].”
CNRP activists had led a group of local villagers to a site in southeastern Cambodia’s Svay Rieng province near the border with Vietnam to demonstrate against what they say are moves by the Vietnamese to encroach upon Cambodian territory.
“It is no coincidence that two of the three men sentenced to a ludicrous 20 years were present in Svay Rieng during the standoff,” Naly Pilorge said.
London-based rights group Amnesty International also weighed in on the outcome of the trial.
“This trial lacked the most basic fair trial guarantees, and the convictions of these 11 activists should be overturned immediately,” said Rupert Abbott, Amnesty’s research director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, in a statement issued Tuesday. “The proceedings were littered with flaws and the defendants were denied the right to be tried by an independent and impartial tribunal.”
Reported by Morm Moniroth for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.