Land activist Tep Vanny was yesterday found guilty and sentenced to 30 months in prison for allegedly ordering an attack on Daun Penh security guards some four years ago.
As the verdict was being handed down inside the courtroom, security guards on the street outside were shoving and kicking Vanny’s fellow activists, chasing one man into a nearby restaurant and beating him in a videotaped incident that quickly went viral.
The charges stemmed from a 2013 clash with Daun Penh security guards outside Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence in Phnom Penh as she and a group of about 60 others attempted to submit a petition for the release of fellow Boeung Kak lake activist Yorm Bopha.
On the day in question, about 200 police, military police and Daun Penh guards – an untrained auxiliary force with a history of brutality at peaceful protests – violently dispersed the group, injuring about 10 of them in the process.
Vanny and two others were briefly detained and released that day, with no charges being filed.
But the nearly four-year-old case was suddenly revived in August after Vanny was arrested for participating in a “cursing ceremony” as part of the so-called Black Monday protests.
Yesterday’s verdict saw her convicted of intentional aggravated violence and sentenced to two and a half years in prison. She was also fined 5 million riel ($1,240) and ordered to pay 4 million and 5 million riel compensation, respectively, to plaintiffs Hao Hoeurn and Ouk Ratana – both Daun Penh security guards.
“I did not commit the [crime],” Vanny said, as she broke down. “I’ve never seen [Hao Hoeurn’s] face, and when I saw it I was very shocked, because he is so big. How could I beat him?”
The trial began on February 3 but was abruptly adjourned the same day by judge Long Kesor Pirum after a commotion broke out in court between one of the plaintiffs, Tep Vanny and observing activists. Pirum cited personal health issues as he postponed the hearing.
As the trial resumed yesterday, Prampi Makara district security guards outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court attempted to disperse protesters, kicking and physically dragging them across the street. In the scuffle, two Boeung Kak residents and a pregnant woman from the Borei Keila community suffered minor injuries and fainted.
The security guards then turned their attention to 46-year-old Mao Socheat after he attempted to intervene, chasing him into a restaurant and punching him repeatedly in an incident captured on video.
Socheat, who recently applied to be a CNRP candidate in the commune elections only to later withdraw, insisted he had only been asking security to unhand the female activists.
“They came to beat me, but I tried to avoid it and fell down on the street. I got up and ran inside City Mall, because I thought I would be safe there,” he said.
Video footage of guards beating Mao Socheat in City Mall:
City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey yesterday refused to comment on Socheat’s beating, saying he had not seen the video, but defended the actions of Prampi Makara security guards.
“I do not consider this violence. It was just pushing from both sides,” he said, adding that Vanny’s supporters had been conducting an “illegal protest”.
Inside in the courtroom, three Boeung Kak residents – Nget Khun, Bo Chhorvy and Kong Chantha – testified on behalf of the defendants, saying the group’s attempt to submit a petition to the premier had not been a demonstration.
No witnesses appeared for the prosecution, though statements from the Daun Penh security guard plaintiffs – also absent – were read aloud in court.
“I heard Tep Vanny order through a loudspeaker telling protesters to go into the prime minister’s house,” Ouk Ratana said in a statement. “Another lady, who was about 50, carried a bag and beat our group, injuring the back of my head.”
Defence lawyer Sam Sokun-thea was quick to point out that the guards had accused Vanny of allegedly instigating the violence but made no attempt to arrest the other alleged perpetrators mentioned in the statements.
“There is no audio or video to show my client used violence, only the answers of the plaintiffs,” she said. “There is no strong evidence against my client.”
More than 60 civil society groups yesterday condemned both the “unjust conviction” and “outrageous violence”, adding that there was no credible evidence to support the case.
“Authorities are once again punishing Vanny for her activism to send a clear message to any who dare criticise the government that dissent is not tolerated in Cambodia,” said Naly Pilorge of Licadho.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY PHAK SEANGLY