The Appeal Court on Thursday heard the case of Chao Veasna, a former commune chief from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who was sentenced last year by the Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court to five years in jail for a violent incident in Poipet town in 2015.
On June 7, last year, Veasna and seven others were charged with “intentional destruction of public property and aggravated circumstances”, based on Articles 28, 494 and 495 of the Criminal Code. Two others charged with them were acquitted.
Eight of them were also ordered to pay a total of around $15,000 for the damage done to the customs office building and several cars, an NGO coordinator said previously.
On Thursday, Judge Nhoung Thol proceeded the hearing by recounting the 2015 incident.
He said, on May 25, 2015, Veasna was among a group of porters who staged a protest in front of the Poipet Customs Department building.
The porters demanded that officers at the Poipet border checkpoint stop demanding 70 baht for each cart. They also called for a face-to-face meeting with the department’s officials.
Thol continued that at around 10am, some porters started overtuning their carts, blocking the road and burning car tyres.
The protest continued until noon, he added, when a group of porters stormed into the customs building, destroyed public property and setting six vehicles belonging to custom officers on fire.
“Regarding the violence, Chao Veasna provoked the workers by telling them that a Military Police officer had killed a porter, Mao Son. Evidence, including photos and videos, show Veasna shouting and making gestures,” Thol said.
Veasna on Thursday reiterated in court that he was at the protest merely in his capacity as a local official.
He claimed that he drove by the building by chance and found a group of people protesting. In his then position as commune chief, he said he had stopped to talk with the protesters.
“After that, I saw a military police officer arrest a porter [Mao Son]. Not long afterwards, the workers who had stormed into the building got out and shouted that Son had died, while in fact, he was taken to the Provincial Referral Hospital at Banteay Meanchey,” Veasna said, adding that he was not involved in the protest as accused and asking the court to release him.
Appeal court prosecutor Hing Bun Chea concluded that Veasna’s confession was false, saying: “Based on evidence and witness account, he was indeed inciting the porters to participate in the violence."
He shouted: ‘Why did you kill my people?’ His statement provoked the protesters to storm into the custom building and start destroying things."
“In this case, the five-year prison sentence handed to Veasna is correct. I ask the Appeal Court to uphold the provincial court’s verdict.”
Choung Choungy, Veasna’s defence lawyer, refuted the prosecutor’s claim that his client had said something so provocative, saying it was a repeated statement from the porters.
“The authorities are often incapable of preventing protests. I ask the court to release my client,” he added.
Choungy said Mao Son – the porter who was detained and beaten up – had killed himself.
Judge Nhoung Thol said the court will hand down its verdict on March 13.
Veasna wasn’t arrested until February 2017, more than a year and a half after the incident. He had said he was targeted for arrest as he was running in last year’s commune elections, which he claimed he would otherwise have won.