The trial of 11 opposition officials and activists, who face up to 30 years in prison on charges related to a July protest that turned violent, is finally due to get under way today, amid widespread censure from human rights groups and campaigners.
In a strongly worded statement published yesterday, Human Rights Watch branded the trial as “baseless” and politically motivated, and highlighted video evidence of the accused attempting to stop the violence.
The charges stem from disorder that broke out during demonstrations on July 15, when lawmakers from the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) led their supporters to demand access to Phnom Penh’s then-barricaded Freedom Park – a focal point of protests in the wake of the country’s disputed 2013 national elections.
Protesters attacked Daun Penh district security guards – a force synonymous with the at-times brutal suppression of the previous year’s demonstrations – leaving 39 injured. At least six protesters were also hurt, three of them while attempting to stop the attacks, according to HRW.
The watchdog claims to have evidence of members of the district security guards arriving in plain clothes and wearing the yellow or orange cloth associated with CNRP supporters, in an apparent attempt to infiltrate the protesters’ ranks. HRW also said it has testimony from a senior member of Cambodia’s security forces stating that Prime Minister Hun Sen specifically deployed the controversial force with the intention of inciting violence that would give the government a pretext to prosecute opposition members.
But a government spokesman yesterday rejected all such claims, insisting they would only be valid if proven in court.
“It is not the mandate of Human Rights Watch or any other organisation to get involved in these matters,” said Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan. “The only decision that matters is that of the court.”
Reached yesterday, CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who herself still has charges related to the protest hanging over her head, insisted that there is widespread video evidence that the batons used by protesters to carry out the attacks were supplied by members of district security themselves.
She said that on the day of the protest, the CNRP politicians had “called on the police to come to us and take [the batons] away as evidence, but they did nothing”.
The violence initially saw Sochua and six other elected CNRP officials detained and charged with leading an insurrection, before their eventual release on bail hours after a political deal was inked with the ruling CPP on July 22.
But over the following months, 11 party members and supporters present at the protest were arrested and accused of “insurrection” – a charge carrying a 20 to 30 year sentence. Among them is Cambodian-American party information head Meach Sovannara, who has been denied bail five times.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has also threatened to find the legal means to prosecute the seven originally arrested, despite their subsequent swearing-in to parliament and acquisition of parliamentary immunity.
Although the CNRP ended their 10-month parliamentary boycott as part of the release deal and a supposed new “culture of dialogue” with the government, the prospects for those appearing in court today appear bleak, legal analysts say.
According to human rights lawyer Sok Sam Oeun, very few government opponents who face trial escape conviction.
“I have never seen them be released,” he said.
It’s a possible fate Sochua remains philosophical about.
“Democracy does not come free of charge,” she said. “But we will continue to fight until our country can rest in peace.”