Four more activists were sentenced to prison yesterday, a day after their arrests, in a trial process that eerily mirrored the breakneck pace of proceedings on Tuesday, when seven Boeung Kak lake protesters met the same fate.
Soeun Hay, a monk from Stung Meanchey pagoda, and three women – Im Sreytouch, a former Boeung Kak resident; Heng Pich from Boeung Kak’s Village 1; and Thoung Sopheap from the Thmor Koul community – were each sentenced to one year in prison and fined $2,700 for “intentionally inciting violence against a public authority”, presiding judge Khy Chay said.
Prosecuting lawyer Kol Vibol said the four suspects had intended to commit violence against the authorities, “because the police have evidence, such as photographs and testimony”.
Two witnesses were called by the court: a traffic police officer and an undercover cop. But neither of the officers could confirm they had seen the suspects acting violently at the protest.
Traffic officer Hay Vith said he “saw the accused at the gathering, but I didn’t see the suspects commit violence against the authorities”.
Saroeun, an undercover police officer at the protest, who only used one name during the hearing, said he “was attacked by protesters, causing my toes to be injured”.
Videos produced by the prosecution, which were supposed to show the suspects attacking the security forces, actually only showed Prampi Makara district security guards beating and arresting protesters.
“Sorry, we were confused,” Vibol said, before showing a photograph of a monk burning a flag outside the Vietnamese Embassy at a different protest.
As Ham Sunrith, lawyer for the defence, was about to give his concluding remarks, Phnom Penh Municipal Court presiding judge Khy Chay stood up and said he “needed to piss”, bringing court documents and a telephone with him, with prosecutor Vibol following close behind.
“According to the authority’s witnesses, the answers of the suspects and the video clips shown, my clients did not commit the crime as accused,” Sunrith said after Chay and Vibol had returned.
Prior to the trial, two monks, Khet Vannak and Thach Sang, from Stung Meanchey pagoda, were arrested when they arrived to support land dispute victims from Preah Vihear province. Both were defrocked along with Hay, said Chuon Narin, deputy Phnom Penh Municipal police chief.
Yesterday’s convictions came amid a wave of legal action over the past few days against land activists, monks and opposition members, which observers and rights groups said is a deliberate attempt to apply pressure to dissenters.
Kem Ley – a longtime political analyst who is currently mulling the formation of a new political party – said the courts were being used to quash public and political opposition.
The Cambodian People’s Party “always uses this strategy on the opposition party to get what they want”, he said. With interparty working group debates on the new election law and the National Election Committee coming to a close, he explained, the CPP was likely using the action to pressure the CNRP to conform to its ideas.
He added that the ruling party was also making an example of some individuals in a bid to “prevent social uprising”.
Another possible contributor to the recent action, he said, was the vote yesterday on the monthly minimum wage for Cambodia’s garment industry.
“They want to prevent large demonstrations,” he said.
Chan Soveth, a senior investigator at local rights group Adhoc, said the arrests were an “obvious attempt to put a stop to protests in Phnom Penh and frighten people away from coming to the capital to show their dissatisfaction”.
Soveth added that the speed of action taken against the seven Boeung Kak Lake activists this week “under a court system which is notoriously slow-moving indicates that these arrests were political”.
“This is not just about those community representatives unjustly imprisoned, it’s part of the wider squeezing of freedoms in Cambodia following last year’s election,” he said.
A joint statement issued yesterday by 30 civil society groups condemned the speed of legal action taken against the seven activists on Tuesday, which was then repeated last night.
Just a day after their arrest, the seven were convicted and dealt the maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $500 fine following a trial that lasted less than five hours.
Legal expert Sok Sam Oeun said that the accused could have bought more time by asking the court to send the case to the investigating judge.
But, he said, “I think that in this kind of case, the accused didn’t know they had the right.” He added the speed of the trial could have been intended to lower support for those arrested.
“If they’re not yet tried, maybe the international community and the public can press the government [to release them], but right now, the court made the decision already, so now [the government can say] the case is over their heads,” he said.
Following the arrest and detention of former opposition parliamentary candidate and head of information Meach Sovannara on Tuesday, a CNRP district council member arrested in late September was again grilled for more than an hour over his alleged involvement in a violent Freedom Park protest on July 15.
The councillor, Sum Vuthy, 44, of the capital’s Chbar Ampov district, left court in tears yesterday after a judge declined to release him on bail.
“The court has not offered me justice in this case,” Vuthy said as he left the courthouse. “I just joined [the protest], but I did not induce them to use violence as charged.”
The July 15 demonstration was led by CNRP officials and ended with serious assaults by opposition supporters on district security guards, who had regularly launched vicious attacks on opposition demonstrations since last year’s election.
The political repercussions of the attack on the security guards continues to be felt, with more than a dozen CNRP lawmakers and party members jailed since the incident, though almost all have now been released.
Analysts at the time suggested that the July crackdown prompted CNRP president Sam Rainsy to return from France and induced the signing of the accord that ended more than 10 months of political deadlock.
Thach Khunsarin, a CNRP council member in attendance at Vuthy’s hearing yesterday, said what we are seeing now is the second phase of the CPP’s strategy to reverse the opposition’s momentum built up over months of street protests.
“The reason for [Vuthy’s] arrest is political, to help them create a National Election Committee [of their own design],” he said, referring to ongoing talks over the composition of a new election body, a key demand of the CNRP. “So they arrest CNRP activists as hostages . . . so the CNRP will negotiate with them, the same reason as why they arrested Meach Sovannara.”
Vuthy’s case will be sent to a higher court, according to defence lawyer Sorn Sudalen.
CNRP lawmaker Yim Sovann said the party was in the process of negotiating with the authorities for Vuthy’s release.
“I and the CNRP’s leaders are finding the means to solve this case, and the solution will be the same as before, since it is a political threat . . . right now we are solving it politically,” he explained.
Rainsy also met yesterday with Interior Minister Sar Kheng to seek the release of Sovannara, according to party deputy president Kem Sokha, who accused the CPP of breaking the July 22 agreement that allowed the CNRP to take their seats in parliament.
“It is an old story that was taking place before July 22 . . . this is contrary to the July 22 agreement, when we promised to end disputes, and we have kept up our side of the bargain by ending demonstrations,” he said, adding that negotiations over the composition of the NEC could not progress unless Sovannara was released.
Investigating judge Keo Mony declined to comment. Kheng and Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached, but the CPP said in a statement that the arrests were not political.
“The Cambodian People’s Party hopes that the Cambodia National Rescue Party can pay attention to making accurate public statements that will benefit the national situation,” the statement read.
REPORTING BY KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA, KIM SAROM, MEAS SOKCHEA, ALICE CUDDY AND MAY TITTHARA