Defence lawyers for 11 CNRP activists appealing an “insurrection” charge refused to proceed with the hearing yesterday without the presence of plaintiffs, as drastically heightened court security restricted media outlets and even family members from attending what the judge insisted was a public trial.
Former CNRP official Meach Sovannara was among those sentenced to up to 20 years for their alleged roles in an opposition protest that turned violent in 2014 when demonstrators turned on a crowd of Daun Penh security guards, who for months had repeatedly used brutal means to disperse peaceful protests. The defendants have long maintained that they were not part of the violence, while Sovannara – among others claims the case is purely political.
Yesterday’s hearing was meant to discuss two appeals – one challenging the guilty verdict and the other challenging flaws in the lower court’s procedures. But before the appeal hearing could begin, defence lawyer Sam Sokong demanded that the court produce the scores of plaintiffs – mostly Daun Penh security guards who claimed to have been injured to appear in the court as witnesses. The other four defence lawyers unanimously agreed.
Judge Plong Samnang said he had summonsed the plaintiffs to the hearing, but it was their right not to appear. However, the plaintiffs’ lawyers had also failed to appear, he noted. “If [the lawyers] still don’t come, we will send a letter to the Bar Association about that,” he said.
In attendance, however, was a contingent of 10 police officers, an abnormally large presence that defence lawyer Choung Choungy decried as a form of “intimidation”.
Choungy also criticised the court for not allowing the defendants’ family members to attend the hearing.
“How can this be a public hearing if there aren’t any people to listen?” he asked. “There are many police officers instead who are here to intimidate my clients.”
Judge Samnang countered that “the courtroom is small; we can’t let in as many people as we want”, though he eventually allowed a few family members in after continued protests from Choungy.
Meanwhile, a heightened police presence deployed at the court gate also banned members of the media from entering, only allowing three reporters into the court, and banning phones and recording devices.
“I received orders to restrict media coverage, and I just follow them,” one officer said yesterday.
Sovannara released a statement yesterday repeating claims that the ruling party was using the court as a “political tool” to imprison political opponents, human rights defenders, land rights activists and analysts.
The statement warns that this practice will cause the CPP to lose the upcoming elections.