The Phnom Penh Municipal Court resumed one of several trials against former CNRP members for allegedly plotting an attack against the government and inciting the military to disobey orders.
The Phnom Penh court continued trial proceedings from December 29 last year, in a case which has an overlap of charges with other similar trials. Friday’s trial involves 21 defendants, who have been charged with plotting, incitement and the inciting of military personnel to defy orders.
The defendants include senior leaders of the party who are in exile, including Sam Rainsy, Mu Sochua and Eng Chhai Eang. The other defendants were lower level party officials, many of who are in pre-trial detention after being arrested for other alleged crimes last year.
Only six defendants were present in court on Friday and most recanted answers given to the police and investigating judge, claiming they were coerced to give those responses. Two other defendants had been questioned in court on December 29.
Friday’s questioning centered around the formation of the Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM) – started in January 2018 after the party’s dissolution in 2017. The trial and grounds for charges seemed to traverse several other issues, including critical comments made by defendants during the COVID-19 pandemic and criticism of the government and ruling party officials.
During the day-long hearing, presiding judge Ros Piseth, who is trying a similar case against 137 former CNRP members, questioned defendants about the CNRM’s structure and its involvement in assisting Sam Rainsy’s unsuccessful attempt at coming back to the country in November 2019.
One of the defendants Sok Chantha, was initially arrested last April for allegedly insulting the King, said he was unaware of the CNRM and had not received any orders from senior party leaders living overseas.
“I did not know about the establishment Cambodian National Rescue Movement,” said Chantha, who a provincial councilor from Prey Veng province.
Chantha also retracted any statements he made before the National Police last year, claiming that officers forced him to confess and thumbprint an agreement to the three charges.
“I reject all reports from the National Police because I was made to thumbprint [documents] because I was scared and the [police] threatened me by saying they had my voice recorded on disks,” he said.
At which point, prosecutor Seng Hieng read out a statement of Chantha’s where he allegedly spoke about remarks he made about the revocation of the “Everything But Arms” trade privileges to the European Union that would cause all factories to shut down in the country and bring joy to the government.
Chantha rejected this statement adding that he was never shown his statement by the investigating judge after the interrogation.
Nhem Vean, a former member of the party’s Svay Rieng executive committee, also took back any statements given to the police or investigating judge, claiming that court officials had inserted inaccurate answers. He said he never claimed that 30 people had died of COVID-19 in Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces last year.
“I agree that I said there were 300 to 400 people who died of COVID-19 in another country but I didn’t say 30 people died in Cambodia,” he said.
Vean added that he was forced to sign the statement given to the police because they threatened the safety of his family.
Judge Piseth denied allegations that the investigating judge or court officials had arbitrarily altered the defendants’ statements in court.
“Court officials are professionals. The [judge] never records anything the defendant didn’t say,” he said. “Did you have any evidence to prove this?”
The trial was adjourned on Friday and will resume on February 4.
Chhay Kimkhoeun, the spokesperson for the National Police, rejected the defendants claim and said they could ask the prosecutor to initiate an investigation if they had evidence to back their accusations.
“If you want to know whether this story is true or not, only the prosecutor can issue an additional investigation order,” Kimkhoeun said. “If the defendants are not satisfied, they can request the prosecutor for an additional investigation.”
Defense lawyer Sam Sokong said the judge should dismiss prior statements because they were given under duress and should not be used to find his clients guilty.
“During the trial, my clients are frankly speaking the truth and they dared to take an oath in front of the court,” Sokong said. (Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy)