Three opposition supporters charged over their roles in a violent anti-government protest in 2014 yesterday faced their first day of trial, with two of the men describing the chaotic scenes as protesters and Daun Penh security guards clashed at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park.
Roeun Chetra, 33; Yon Kimhour, 29; and Yea Thong, 44, face between seven and 15 years in prison for “participating in an insurrection”, under articles 456 and 457 of the Criminal Code.
Eleven CNRP activists have already been convicted and sentenced over the protest, which left at least 39 of the notoriously violent security guards and six protesters injured.
The case has been slammed as politically motivated.
The trio were arrested in August, days after Prime Minister Hun Sen called for yet more arrests in the case.
Yesterday, two of the defendants took the stand to testify about the events of July 15.
Chetra, a tuk-tuk driver from Kandal province, recalled at-tending a meeting a day before the protest to reopen Freedom Park, which had been barricaded amid the political tension arising from rolling protests that followed the disputed 2013 election.
Stating he joined the protest of his own accord, Chetra said he was tasked by CNRP youth team leader San Kim Heng – among the 11 already convicted – with controlling the crowd in order to avoid clashes during the demonstration, and was given an armband and pin to identify his role.
“He told me not to make any conflict but stick to nonviolence,” Chetra said.
When clashes erupted the next day, Chetra, who said he was trying to direct the crowd on Naga bridge, said he entered the fray to help Kimheng, who he said was being beaten by security guards.
“I saw San Kim Heng fall to the ground,” Chetra recalled.
“As I tried to drag him away, I was beaten by a guard on my head. After I got him away, I went back and kneed the guard who beat me twice. I then went to hospital with Kim Heng.”
Kimhour, a motodop originally from Kampong Chhnang province, said he was a CNRP youth member for Daun Penh district, a chapter led by Heng Samnang. He said that he had spent his own money to attend the protest that day, where he also was directed to help control the crowd.
“First, the security guards came to disperse us and prevent us from being together,” he recalled.
“We split up but later on regrouped. Then the guards came again to beat us and the clash broke out. I was at the tail of the Naga [on the bridge], holding a stick with a flag. I swung at the guards, but my stick did not reach them. Then a smoke bomb was fired.”
Under questioning by judge Mong Monisophea, both defendants said they were unaware that the protest was not permitted by authorities, saying they had joined the opposition’s efforts several days before the clash.
Chetra was also quizzed about wooden sticks found in sacks alleged to have been used by the protesters. However, he said these were in fact taken from security guards.
“The protesters had only flags and plastic sticks. No metal or rocks inside,” he said.
More than 10 security guards involved in the brawl attended the hearing. Some laughed during the testimony of the defendants, whose wives were also present in the court room and called for their release, insisting they did not initiate violence.
Reached yesterday, Kim Vutha, chief of the Daun Penh security guards, a quasi-official force with a long history of brutally suppressing nonviolent protests, denied his men were to blame for the clash, noting none had been arrested.
“We are the victims,” he said.
However, chief of the CNRP’s Phnom Penh executive committee Man Phalla disputed this. “Both parties were injured, but only the protesters were arrested,” he said.