Journalists were barred from entering Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday as what was meant to be the start of a highly charged trial of opposition party members and supporters abruptly morphed into an impromptu bail hearing.
Five of the 11 defendants – all supporters and officials of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party – have been in pre-trial detention since their arrests, and have already been denied bail before.
Yesterday’s renewed requests were likewise denied, and the five were returned to Prey Sar prison in the evening.
As he was escorted from the court, Meach Sovannara, the head of the CNRP’s information department who was arrested on November 11, reiterated the group’s longstanding contention that their arrests were purely political.
“We have asked for release on bail and that the charges against us be dropped, because it is politically motivated. It is not a criminal case,” he said.
Lawyers present during the closed proceedings said that presiding judge Taing Sun Lay had declined their request.
The group faces charges of insurrection over violence that broke out in Freedom Park on July 15.
On that day, protesters attacked several district security guards, members of a force that was used to crack down on anti-government demonstrations following the July 2013 national election, and which routinely resorted to violence against peaceful protesters.
Seven lawmakers and an activist were arrested over the July 15 violence but released shortly after the CNRP and ruling Cambodian People’s Party ended a year of political deadlock with a deal on July 22.
Arrests of party supporters and activists have occurred sporadically since.
Rights groups had previously called for the charges against the 11 to be dropped, citing a lack of evidence.
Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch said it has video evidence proving that those accused did not take part in the violence but instead tried to prevent it.
A conviction on an insurrection charge can bring 30 years in prison.
Since the arrests of the 11, analysts have suggested that the trials might be intended to apply pressure on the opposition, which is still negotiating key details of the settlement that ended the CNRP’s boycott of parliament.
“These are political cases,” said Mu Sochua, a CNRP lawmaker who was among those arrested in July and later released. “They should not have been in court to begin with. I am disappointed, and it all points towards the political nature of the trial.”
But Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, disagreed.
“It’s all in the hands of the court. We have nothing to do with that case, as the executive,” he said. “We have no plans to manipulate [the outcome of the case].”
According to Ny Chakrya, head of investigations for rights group Licadho, who was present during the opening day of the trial, the judge denied the activists’ bail to prevent them from “getting out and going back to [political] affairs”.
“I understand that this decision is made under political influence, rather than based in the law. Negotiations are under way to make an Election Law, so there is pressure on this case.”
But the CNRP’s Sochua said that she had not gotten the impression during the negotiations over the new law that there was tension between the two sides.
Sovannara’s lawyer, Chan Chen, said the court had no legal reason to continue to detain his client, as he has a registered address.
“I regret the judge’s decision to deny my client bail . . . but the judge was not confident that the accused would appear [at the next hearing],” he said.
The trial is scheduled to resume on January 8.