Prominent activist monk Venerable Loun Sovath is awaiting new charges after the Phnom Penh Municipal Court discovered grave technical errors involving his case during a trial that lawyers and NGO officials have called “bewildering”.
Sovath, an internationally recognised human rights defender, was originally charged with incitement to commit a felony for allegedly leading land-dispute victims in protests against government authorities.
He appeared in a public hearing yesterday alongside three men with ties to so-called terrorist group Khmer People Power Movement (KPPM) who had additional charges of treason and obstructing electoral procedures.
The monk, however, was dismissed an hour into the hearing and the current charges against him dropped after court judges learned that he was being tried under the wrong case.
“We are transferring the case of Venerable Loun Sovath to the investigating judge because today’s case is not related to him” presiding judge Tob Chhun Heng told the court. “His case is under investigation.”
The unexpected decision has caused mounting confusion among observers, lawyers and Sovath himself.
“I have no idea when my next hearing is or what I’m being charged with,” Sovath told the Post. “This is a huge technical mistake made by the court … and this is proof of how it’s rife with injustice.”
According to defence lawyer Ham Sunrith, a case was filed in 2011 combining charges against Sovath and KPPM leader Cambodian-American Sourn Serey Ratha.
The court ordered that a new case file be made for Sovath in November 2012.
But up until yesterday, the monk has been summonsed to trial for charges relating to the 2011 case with Serey Ratha.
“It’s really strange. We just realised today that they have a case file for him since 2012 when the prosecutors decided to break open the case file,” Sunrith said.
The defence lawyers have not yet been granted access to the 2012 case file but upon inspection, Sunrith found that the charge against Sovath was dated July 22, 2014.
“This is unusual because the case file was started in 2012 and the charge was included after in 2014,” Sunrith said.
The defence is currently determining what the new charges are and awaiting the date of the next hearing.
The temporary impasse, Sovath said, is a result of the overwhelming support he has received from allies both here and abroad.
“We are successful today because our good action brought good results … and now, while the court is processing, many people in the world will read about what happened and see the injustices happening in Cambodia,” Sovath said.
After the hearing, nearly 200 supporters welcomed Sovath as he walked down the steps of the municipal court.
Overcome with relief upon seeing Sovath exit the court, several monks and civilians yelled prayers of gratitude into a loudspeaker, their words heard inside the courtroom.
Supporters waving an assortment of flags and posters bearing the monk’s face swarmed him as he led them in a march to Samaki Rainsy Pagoda, where he has found sanctuary for the past year.
“We came far for Loun Sovath … and we are so happy that he hasn’t been mistreated and nothing bad has happened to him,” said land activist Then Heab, who travelled from the monk’s native Chi Kreng village in Siem Reap province.
Other land activists from communities in Siem Reap, Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Thom, Preah Vihear and Phnom Penh also came to support the monk, according to Licadho.
Despite the small victory, observing members of the opposition and NGO officials still continue to urge authorities to drop the charges against Sovath, especially after a recent spate of arrests and defrockings of Buddhist monks.
“Buddhism is the state’s religion … and they are abusing it by inviting him to court as he did not commit any of the charges in the eyes of Buddhist law,” said opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker Mu Sochua, who attended the hearing.
Amnesty International's deputy director for the Asia-Pacific region, Rupert Abbott, agreed, saying Sovath should not have to face another trial.
“Would they have made this decision if there had not been anyone observing? I don’t know. But the authorities should be celebrating Loun Sovath as a human rights defender and not persecute him,” Abbott said.
Last Sunday, sixteen NGOs called on the court to drop the charges against Sovath, who has spent around five years at the helm of campaigns defending human rights.
According to Licadho senior investigator Am Sam Ath, yesterday’s procedural error confirmed that the case against Sovath was bogus and the court had no clear evidence to charge him.
“They want to kill me through the courts, but today, it didn’t happen. I’m still worried, but for the moment, we are victorious,” Sovath said.
The court went on to conduct a hearing in the KPPM case for several hours before adjourning, saying proceedings would continue on December 9.