A Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge yesterday prohibited lawyers for two opposition lawmakers beaten outside parliament last year from probing the suspects for the name of their commander in the Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit.
Soldiers Mao Hoeung, 34; Sot Vanny, 45; and Chhay Sarith, 33 – all members of the premier’s elite corp – yesterday faced their first day of trial, charged with intentional violence with aggravating circumstances and property damage over the October 26 attack on Cambodia National Rescue Party parliamentarians Kong Saphea and Nhay Chamroeun, who were dragged from their cars and beaten by at least 16 men.
The charges carry sentences of up to five years each. Under questioning by Sam Sokong, a lawyer for the victims, Sarith, the only suspect to take the stand yesterday, admitted that he and his co-defendants were Bodyguard Unit members, though the line of questioning soon strayed into territory that deputy prosecutor Sin Vireak claimed was unsuitable.
“You work in the bodyguard unit. Did you come to the parliament by yourself or were you ordered? And who did you report to?” Sokong asked Sarith during the two-hour hearing.
“I came by myself,” Sarith answered, before addressing the second query by saying, “I would like not to answer.”
Almost immediately after the question, Vireak interjected.
“This is a case of an individual committing an offence. If [the lawyer asks] questions [like this] it affects the individual’s rights. Please don’t raise [this question] in the trial,” Vireak said, before asking judge Yeng Sok Na to prohibit the plaintiff’s lawyers from asking questions relating to the men’s superiors, a request Sok Na granted.
Sok Na said the victims’ lawyers could submit the relevant questions for his consideration.
Evidence revealed by the Post yesterday suggests soldiers were ferried from a Bodyguard Unit base in Takhmao district – which is under the command of deputy Bodyguard Unit chief Lieutenant General Deang Sarun – to the parliament on the day of the attack. The Post has been unable to contact Sarun.
The assault took place following a demonstration by thousands of pro-CPP supporters who were calling for CNRP acting president Kem Sokha to step down as the National Assembly’s first vice president.
After the attack, the bodyguards’ chief commander, Lieutenant General Hin Bun Heang, denied involvement by the unit, which is under the command of the premier, who alluded to the protest the day before it happened but has denied the ruling Cambodian People’s Party orchestrated the violence.
In a recent interview, Saphea – who, like Chamroeun, opted not to attend yesterday – identified Sarith as the man who ripped him out of his car.
Saphea recalled Sarith spoke into a walkie-talkie while gesturing to his car as he approached.
Yesterday, under questioning by judge Sok Na, Sarith, however, maintained he did not know his victim was an opposition lawmaker during the attack. “I did not know. If I knew, I would not have dared to beat him. I confessed when I found out he was a lawmaker,” said Sarith, who appealed for a lenient sentence.
Sarith admitted he had beaten the lawmakers, who he claimed insulted him, but rejected the charge of property damage, which relates to the damage sustained by the victims’ cars.
“His car stopped and the window opened and he shouted at us that we were ‘youn’s puppets’ and asked ‘why did you come here?’”, Sarith said, using a word for Vietnamese people some consider derogatory.
“I went to open the door [of the car]. I beat him once with my hand on his face, pulled him down from the car and kicked him one time on the body.”
After the hearing, Sokong told reporters he would push the court to permit questions about the Bodyguard Unit commanders at the next hearing, scheduled for May 10.
While a total 16 men were seen participating in the beating on video, Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division, said the government wanted the case to finish with just the three suspects.
“The take away is that this trial is all for show, the real truth of the breadth of this brutal, orchestrated attack will not come out, and the Cambodian judiciary remains a trusted lap-dog of the CPP,” Robertson said.