Five lawmakers from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and a youth leader were charged in court Wednesday with inciting violence and ordered detained pending trial after their followers clashed with security guards to force the reopening of Freedom Park in Phnom Penh.
Deputy CNRP chief Kem Sokha threatened to suspend talks with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party if they were not freed while human rights groups questioned the legality of the detention of the six party members who have been accused of leading a revolt, among other charges.
One local rights group called the charges politically motivated as the Phnom Penh Municipal Court denied bail to the six, who were arrested following a clash on Tuesday between CNRP supporters and security personnel guarding Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park.
The clash, which left nearly 40 people injured—mostly guards--erupted when security guards tried to pull down a banner hung by the opposition calling on the government to reopen the park, the only place where protests were allowed in the capital until it was closed to the public in January following a deadly crackdown on CNRP-backed striking workers.
Sam Sok Kong, a lawyer representing one of the lawmakers, said the court judge had charged the six with leading a revolt against public officials, masterminding violence, and provocation to commit a crime, adding that they could face about 20 years in prison if convicted.
But he said that the judge had failed to provide sufficient evidence to support the charges against elected CNRP lawmakers Mu Sochua, Keo Phirum, Men Sothavrin, Ho Vann, and Riel Khemarin, and youth movement leader Oeun Narith.
“These charges are based on suspicion—there is not enough evidence to accuse the six people of having committed a crime,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“Our lawyers are gathering evidence to defend the case. Our clients said they didn’t commit any crime and that they have evidence to show they were not involved in any plans for violence.”
Sam Sok Kong said Wednesday that he had asked the judge to release the group on bail, but was refused. No date was set for their trial.
He said that he will file an appeal against the decision to deny bail for the six, who are currently being held in Prey Sar Prison, and ask that all charges against them be dropped.
The court additionally plans to level similar charges at opposition lawmakers Long Ry—who is also the chief of security for the CNRP—and Nuth Rumduol, according to Sam Sok Kong, though the two have not been detained.
Speaking to RFA on Wednesday, Long Ry and Nuth Rumduol denied any wrongdoing and said they would comply with authorities if they are ordered arrested.
‘No legal responsibility’
New York-based Human Rights Watch slammed the charges as “just another attempt by the government to … cause trouble for the opposition.”
“There is no evidence at all that the opposition politicians incited violence … There is no legal responsibility for them—they didn’t do anything that violated the law,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“Really, what the government should do is end its prohibition on freedom of assembly at Freedom Park and let people stand there and shout at the top of their lungs if they want to about wanting democracy. It’s no threat to the government to let people do that.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen has announced that a protest ban imposed after the deadly January crackdown would be lifted, but the authorities have refused to allow public protests.
Adams said that he sees no sign of an end to a political standoff between the CNRP and Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) which has been in place since the latter was declared the winner of disputed elections last July, despite allegations of fraud.
The charges would only “make things worse,” Adams said.
“It’s going to make the CNRP people angrier and its going to make it harder for the CNRP leadership to make a deal with the government. And it’s going to make the government feel like they can use oppression to end this problem,” he said.
“Now that these charges have been filed, I think [the ruling party] will try to use it as a pressure point on the opposition.”
CNRP lawmakers have boycotted the National Assembly, or parliament, since the results to last year’s elections were announced and talks to resolve differences between the two parties have repeatedly broken down.
Adams said relations between the two parties could be seriously affected by the case against the six CNRP members and called on the government to drop the “ridiculous” charges.
“And maybe they will, but in the past it has always taken a long time for these charges to be dropped and only after a lot of pressure” from donor countries, he said.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) on Wednesday also called for “the immediate and unconditional release of opposition leaders” and for an end to violence.
In a statement, CCHR said that the charges brought against the six were “politically-motivated,” considering the speed with which they were hauled to court and the fact that all those arrested were high-ranking CNRP leaders who it said were not directly responsible for any violence.
“Today’s charges illustrate again that the judiciary is once again used as a political tool to restrict freedom of expression and opposition voices by the government of Cambodia,” CCHR senior researcher Chor Chanthyda said.
The group urged all parties to refrain from acts of violence and called on the government to “immediately fully restore the right to freedom of assembly,” including in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park, and to refrain from using private, untrained security guards to police demonstrations.
Effect on talks
CNRP’s deputy leader Kem Sokha warned that if the six were not released, the party would refuse to engage in negotiations with the CPP to end the political deadlock.
“We can’t sit and negotiate while our people are being detained in jail—these members are senior leaders of the party,” Kem Sokha told reporters after leading a protest with hundreds of supporters in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court during the hearing.
The deputy president said that the court must release the opposition lawmakers if it does not want to illegitimatize the National Assembly.
He added that at a recent session of the National Assembly, the CPP had announced that the body was made up of a full 123 MPs, meaning that the five lawmakers should enjoy parliamentary immunity.
Government spokesman Keo Remy said that the arrest of the five lawmakers wouldn’t affect negotiations between the two parties.
“The arrest won’t affect the talks. We are simply implementing rule of law,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.