The trial of 11 Cambodia National Rescue Party officials and activists charged with insurrection was sidetracked for a second time in two weeks yesterday after two opposition lawmakers were banned from the public gallery, prompting defence lawyers to boycott the hearing.
Before any of the accused was given the chance to deny their involvement in violence in Freedom Park on July 15, the three presiding judges asked two CNRP lawmakers to leave Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
The order came after lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that lawmakers who had previously been charged themselves over the same violent demonstration should not be allowed to observe.
“These seven names are not allowed to listen,” Judge Taing Sun Lay said after convening with his colleagues for about 20 minutes.
Of the seven CNRP lawmakers arrested over the July 15 violence and later released when a political deal was struck on July 22, only Mu Sochua and Long Ry were in court yesterday.
The two lawmakers stayed put as the 11 defendants’ lawyers contested the decision.
“As long as the court chases out these [lawmakers], I cannot join this hearing,” defence lawyer Choung Choungy told the judges. “Please do not extend this case to include [the lawmakers]. There are only 11 accused.”
Choungy was soon backed by 10 other lawyers in a boycott they threatened to continue if the lawmakers are not allowed to observe future hearings.
But Cheng Peng Hab, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said it is not appropriate for Sochua and Ry to hear testimony because they are still under the “control” of the court.
“If they are sitting listening, they can find a way to defend themselves,” Peng Hab said.
Many, however, consider the cases against the lawmakers over after the political deal.
The prosecutor, Ke Socheat, did not object to the lawmakers being in court and urged the trial to continue – boycott or not.
“We should debate only this case. Please, judges, decide,” he said, before urging them to select new lawyers for the defendants if the boycott continues.
However, defence lawyer Sam Sok Kong said the judges have no right to replace the lawyers.
“I will insist the court opens a hearing so that my clients can be released on bail,” Sok Kong said after the hearing, which ended without any defence testimony.
The 11 face charges of joining or leading an insurrection over the demonstration, when opposition supporters turned the tables on violent district security guards.
Their trial was meant to begin on December 25 but ended up becoming a de facto bail hearing for five of them who have been in pretrial detention.
After yesterday’s hearing, Sochua said that as a lawmaker, she had an obligation to observe on behalf of the 14 million Cambodians she served. To deny her that would be unconstitutional, she added.
“We would like lawmakers’ rights respected,” she said. “This is a public hearing.”
Am Sam Ath, who was in court yesterday in his role as senior investigator for human rights group Licadho, said the hearing should have focused on the 11.
“Such delays make it more difficult for the five accused men in detention.”
The trial will continue at a yet to be specified date.