The trial of 15 youth activists and former CNRP officials over protests supporting jailed union leader Rong Chhun was postponed on Wednesday, with the judge agreeing to summons police officials to verify the legitimacy of statements presented in the name of one of the defendants.
Under examination, former CNRP official Chhour Pheng said that reports filed with the court by authorities were partially fabricated, attributing to him statements that he did not make, including that he had been an organizer of the protests.
“I am just a normal activist of CNRP and I am not an organizer to collect the people gathering in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to protest against the court to release Rong Chhun,” Pheng said.
He agreed with some elements of the statements – including passing on messages from former CNRP lawmaker and co-defendant Ho Vann about the protests – but distanced himself from others, saying that officials had drawn their own conclusions, leading deputy prosecutor Sam Rithyveasna to question the integrity of his answers.
“I think that my answer is not important; the important [thing] is political negotiations,” Pheng replied.
After a request from defense lawyer Sam Sokong, judge Tith Sothy Borachat adjourned the trial so that the relevant officials could be summonsed to verify statements taken from Pheng.
Pheng is among seven former officials of the CNRP, seven youth activists and one Cambodian-Australian politician facing between six months and two years in prison on charges of incitement to disturb social security over their involvement in protests against the jailing in August of Chhun, who was also charged with incitement over comments he made about Cambodia ceding land to Vietnam.
Pheng and fellow CNRP officials Chum Puthy and Uk Sam An were arrested and charged in August; their colleagues – Ho Vann, Ou Chanrith, Kong Saphea and Seng Bunrong – and Hong Lim, a former member of parliament in the Australian state of Victoria, remain at large.
Chhun was arrested on July 31 and charged with incitement to disturb social security for remarks he made in an interview with Radio Free Asia. During the interview, Chhun said Vietnamese soldiers had placed border posts at some locations in Tbong Khmum that were 500 meters inside Cambodian territory affecting farmers living along the contentious border.
Youth activists Hun Vannak, Chhoeun Daravy, Eng Malai, Koeut Saray and Tha Lavy, from Khmer Thavrak, and Mean Prummony and Moung Sopheak, of the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association, face the same charges, and were present in court.
Ny Sokha, head of monitoring for local rights group Adhoc, was present for the hearing and said that the line of questioning suggested that Pheng was being prosecuted for raising funds and collecting people to rally in support of Chhun.
“In any democratic country, those activities are not illegal,” Sokha said outside the court, adding that citizens had the legal right to gather in protest of a judicial decision that they see as unjust.
“If we take a political case to solve through the court system, it is difficult because they only have to use freedom of expression to be linked to the opposition party.”
The trial is the latest in a slew of cases against voices of dissent and comes as exiled former opposition leader Sam Rainsy and his supporters say they are preparing once more to return to Cambodia and “restore democracy.”
Rainsy fled Cambodia in 2016; his party was outlawed in 2017 for allegedly conspiring with a foreign power to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen – charges that have been roundly criticized as baseless.
On Wednesday, Rainsy was among five people sentenced to between one and two years prison on separate incitement charges; on Tuesday the court began hearing the case of Rainsy and 20 others accused of conspiring to topple the government.
“Activists rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly were regularly trampled by the Cambodian authorities in both a literal and figurative sense,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement looking back at 2020.
“[P]olice used increased violence to suppress peaceful protests and hit people with bogus incitement charges based on their political affiliations or exercise of their human rights,” he added, calling for the release of more than 60 political prisoners.