Three men, all members of the military, were yesterday charged over the savage assault of two opposition lawmakers outside parliament last week during a pro-CPP protest, as the spotlight intensified on the role of the armed forces in the attack.
Royal Cambodian Armed Forces members Sot Vanny, 45, Chhay Sarith, 33, and Mao Hoeung, 34, each face one charge of intentional violence with aggravating circumstances and two counts of property damage stemming from the October 26 gang-bashing of opposition lawmakers Kong Sakphea and Nhay Chamroeun, a Phnom Penh Municipal Court official said yesterday.
The trio was yesterday questioned by three prosecutors, including deputy prosecutor Meas Chanpiseth, before being sent to Prey Sar prison for temporary detention.
Chanpiseth would only say the group had been charged under articles 218 and 411 of the penal code for the attack, which left the victims requiring surgery after they were ripped from separate cars and beaten in the street outside parliament.
Chanpiseth said he did not know the group’s military ranks or units, though Post reporters were yesterday directed to a base connected to the elite Prime Minister’s Bodyguard Unit when seeking permission to interview Vanny’s family.
Phnom Penh court clerk Sok Mony said the trio – who, unlike opposition activists brought before the court this year, were not cuffed yesterday – face prison terms of up to 15 years as well as a maximum $7,500 fine.
The attackers emerged after thousands of pro-CPP protesters calling for Kem Sokha to be removed as parliament’s first vice president, including ruling-party-aligned youth groups, began to disperse.
Via Facebook yesterday, Sakphea called for the charges to be increased to attempted murder and called for more arrests.
“There are not only three but more attackers,” Sakphea wrote.
A police officer with knowledge of the special commission set up to investigate the beatings, who declined to be named, said the trio had surrendered on Monday and confessed to the attack, but had claimed they were provoked by the victims.
“They said that the reason why they beat them is that they got angry that the victims opened their cars’ windows and cursed them while driving and leaving from the National Assembly,” the source said.
But in an interview at the court yesterday, Vanny denied he had turned himself in and rejected the charges entirely, claiming he had merely attended the protest.
“I did not beat them,” Vanny said. “I did not come out to confess, but police have arrested me [at my home] and accused me of beating the two CNRP lawmakers.”
Political tensions have spiked following the brutal attack, amid allegations of government and military collusion.
The CNRP has claimed Prime Minister Hun Sen ordered the protest and accompanying violence in retaliation for anti-government rallies that met the premier during his state visit to France last month.
Hun Sen took to the nation’s airwaves days later to condemn the violence and call for the suspects to surrender, though the CPP subsequently used the protest to justify booting Sokha from his deputy president position in the National Assembly, an ousting explicitly called for by RCAF Deputy Commander Kun Kim.
Yesterday, high-ranking defence officials including Defense Minister Tea Banh, his deputy cabinet director Khieu Chhen, and Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat could not be reached to discuss the implication of military personnel in the assault.
Recently, Hun Sen’s Bodyguard Unit released a statement to refute claims that Chay Sarith was a member of the elite group after photos circulated on Facebook showing the suspect in uniform.
But yesterday afternoon, in Vanny’s village of Prekraing in Kandal province’s Takhmao town, where Sarith is also from, a member of the local authorities said that, as Vanny was a member of the military, the permission of the local commanding officer was required to speak with his family.
The necessary commander, identified only by the nickname “Bong Run”, was based at a military compound near Vanny’s house belonging to the Bodyguard Unit, whose main headquarters is also nearby.
The commander was unavailable, being in Phnom Penh “on a mission”.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHHAY CHANNYDA AND VONG SOKHENG