An investigation into the cause of violence against former opposition activists in Trapeang Phlong prison in Tbong Khmum province on August 21 indicated that the trouble began when two of them “refused to cooperate” and shouted insults, said a senior official.

Nuth Savana, spokesman for the Ministry of Interior’s General Department of Prisons (GDP), confirmed on September 4 that officers were only following procedures for inmate processing and safety. He explained that when 38 inmates – 14 of them activists from the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) – arrived at the prison, they were treated like any other newcomers.

“Prison officers – along with an assistant who is a detainee himself at the prison – were checking the new arrivals. But two of the 14 activists didn’t cooperate with the assistant, saying he was just a prisoner and even insulting him.

“The assistant got angry and responded in kind, saying they [activists] were also ‘thieves’ and thus not any better. They were then at each other’s throats, leading to a fight after [the assistant] slapped the duo: Keo Thai and Nhem Vein,” he said.

Sam Sokong, a lawyer for the 14 activists, claimed that Vien was more seriously injured than Thai and therefore should get a medical treatment outside of the prison. But he said he would await the results of treatment by medics on duty at the prison and from rights group LICADHO before making a request for Vien.

“In fact, three out of the 14 activists suffered violence, but Thai and the other one only sustained mild injuries. [Vien] has broken ribs and injuries to his ears, which were severely affected. I think prison medics are not specialised enough in ear care, which requires treatment outside of the prison,” he said.

But the GDP spokesman rejected the lawyer’s claims, saying Vien already had an ear condition prior to the fight.

“The real problem is that Vien has swollen knees, which the medical team is taking care of. They have given him medicine to apply on the knees,” he said.

Sokong said he planned to submit a letter to the GDI requesting the transfer of all 14 inmates to a prison in Phnom Penh.

“We believe that the transfer of these 14 inmates from Prey Sar Prison in [Phnom Penh] to Trapeang Phlong near the Vietnamese border was to avoid any visits by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, when he was in Cambodia last month,” he said.

According to the lawyer, the transfer of his clients from the capital will adversely affect the court’s proceedings as they have not yet reached a final verdict.

Savana rejected the claims that the transfer was to avoid a visit by the UN rapporteur. He said the transfer of inmates between facilities takes place on a regular basis to ease overcrowding in prisons.

The 14 former CNRP activists were each sentenced to five years in prison on charges of incitement to commit a crime and conspiracy to plotting against the government.

However, the court decided to impose a sentence of three years and eight months with the remainder of their terms suspended.