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Cambodia court puts 25 activists on trial

Defendants face vandalism and violence charges after bloody protests

<p>Military police inside Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium, ahead of the trial. More than 100 were deployed (Photo by Abby Seiff)</p>

Military police inside Phnom Penh's Olympic Stadium, ahead of the trial. More than 100 were deployed (Photo by Abby Seiff)

  • Abby Seiff, Phnom Penh
  • Cambodia
  • April 25, 2014
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Amid a heavy security presence that saw even witnesses being barred from entry, Phnom Penh Municipal Court today began proceedings against nearly two dozen people accused of property damage and intentional violence during January’s bloody protests.

The case against 23 unionists, workers, protesters and bystanders—including several high-profile activists—who were rounded up over the course of two days in early January has come under heavy criticism by rights groups who term the case political and the charges unfounded. The court also simultaneously tried two other individuals who were arrested during November clashes that saw the death of one bystander and at least seven injuries.

Garment worker protests calling for a higher minimum wage took a violent turn in early January when an elite army unit was sent to break up rallies outside the Yakjin factory on January 2. A day later, military police and protesters clashed on nearby Veng Sreng street, where officers opened fire—killing at least five and wounding scores.

The government has steadfastly maintained that such crackdowns were necessary to staunch violent uprisings and has deemed no officials guilty for the deaths. But the 10 arrested at Yakjin and 13 arrested the following day have been shown little leniency thus far. Many were seriously wounded after being beaten by police and all were inexplicably remanded far from Phnom Penh to a notorious prison on the Vietnamese border. After the arrests, their whereabouts were hidden from lawyers and family members for nearly a week.

Spread out over three courtrooms, the sprawling case—the biggest human rights-related trial in modern Cambodian history—aimed to assess the guilt of 25 individuals arrested in three different incidents.

But in the courtrooms, it quickly became clear that the complexities of such a case would be overshadowed by suggestions of a pre-determined outcome.

As defendants were paraded one-by-one through Courtroom One (which covered the Yakjin case) for questioning, prosecutors and the judge took turns badgering the defense and their attorneys.

“The army was there because the anarchists came up to the gate and tried to destroy everything. The lawyer should be asking how many soldiers were injured by rock throwers,” an exasperated Judge Keo Mony yelled at a defense lawyer after the latter tried to establish how many soldiers were present.

Later, when defendant Nakry Vanda told the court he’d dropped his motorbike and ran as a column of heavily-armed soldiers moved in to break up protesters, the prosecutor pounced, calling it clear evidence of his guilt.

“You’re involved with this case,” said a prosecutor. “You dropped your motorbike and ran. If you weren’t involved, you wouldn’t have pushed it down and run away.”

To help ascertain guilt, the judge showed each defendant one of two photos taken outside Yakjin, in which a group of people can be seen milling around the factory, and asked if they recognized the scene. None of those questioned denied being present, but one after another each insisted they were innocent of attacking officials.

As the day wore on, family members tried to remain hopeful but said they were concerned about a seemingly unjust court.

Sokun Sombath Visal, the brother of Sokun Sambath Piseth—an NGO worker who was arrested while monitoring the protests at Yakjin—said the fact that there was little inculpatory evidence seemed moot.

“I hope he will be released because he didn’t commit anything that they have accused him of,” said Sombath Visal. “[But] I think there will be injustice under the pressure of the government. It’s a political court.”

During the arrest, police beat Sambath Piseth so badly they broke his hand. Today, said his sister, his arm still hurts and they fear the muscle may never properly heal. According to rights group Licadho, “the delay in receiving appropriate and timely medical treatment means he may lose full use of [his] hand.”

“I don’t know what the outcome will be. I’m just waiting. But I think it will be unjust,” said his sister Sokun Sombath Leakhana.

Outside the court, barricades sealed the roads for a few hundred meters in each direction. A few hundred protesters gathered at the edges, where security was so strong that at least a dozen witnesses from both sides were barred entry.

“It’s difficult to predict whether or not they will release them because, in fact, the case depends on the politic[al situation]. The government has put them as a political thing,” said Venerable An Vicheth, a 29-year-old monk from the capital’s Wat Sarawan.

The case comes during renewed talk of political negotiations between an opposition that has boycotted the government since the widely-criticized July elections and a ruling party that’s growing increasingly heavy-handed. Many have speculated that the group has become a hostage for negotiations.

As dozens of international and local monitors crowded the courtrooms, family members grinned as their sons, husbands, fathers and brothers were led by in orange jumpsuits and shackles.

Teng Chantha, a garment worker at the Yakjin factory who had arrived to present testimony corroborating her brother’s defense, said she was happy just to get a glimpse of her brother. Twenty-one-year-old Teng Chanthy, a student, was arrested while delivering lunch to his sister the day of the clashes.

“I just got to see him this morning and he looks ok, but we didn’t speak,” she said, adding it was the first time she had seen her brother since she watched him being wrestled to the ground by police. “It’s too expensive to visit, I’ve never been.”

Hearings will continue on May 6. 

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