The Phnom Penh Municipal Court began a trial on Friday into incitement charges against prominent unionist Rong Chhun, with the hearing getting fiery as all parties sparred over the facts of the case.
Rong Chhun, who is president of Cambodian Confederation of Unions, was arrested last year for a Facebook post and comments he made on Radio Free Asia where he claimed that farmers in Tbong Khmum province had lost land during demarcation of the border with Vietnam. He was charged with incitement to cause social disorder in August.
The Cambodian government is highly sensitive to the border demarcation process. Many Cambodians, including members of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, allege that Cambodia has ceded territory to Vietnam as border posts have been placed along the border.
The three-hour hearing also raised questions over an organization Rong Chhun works with, Cambodia Watchdog Council, and whether it was officially registered.
During the trial, Chhun denied accusations that he had attempted to incite people with his comments and said he was using his right to freedom of expression to raise an important issue.
“It was not incitement because I posted [the comments] from July 21 to July 31 and there was no movement to cause turmoil,” he said. “If there was disturbance in society it was after I was arrested and youth activists started protesting.”
Chhun also refused to answer questions about the identities of colleagues who went to the border, evidence to support people’s claim of lost land and the number of border posts he visited. He also had a few heated disagreements with presiding judge Li Sokha.
“Are you sure that villagers really lost their land?” Sokha asked. “[Your] statement was to confuse the public.”
Chhun’s lawyer, Sam Sokong, immediately objected to the judge’s accusatory line of questioning.
“The judge’s questioning seemed biased and he was making an assumption that my client is guilty, and so that means we can’t find justice for my client,” he said after the trial.
The prosecutor and government lawyer said Chhun’s use of the word “yuon”, a pejorative for the Vietnamese, was intended to incite people to blame the government.
“As we know, the use of language like ‘yuon’ is racist,” said Chhin Boravuth, a government lawyer.
Boravuth said Chhun wanted his comments to be incendiary and that he was not a border expert to make any conclusions about the demarcation process.
Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator at rights group ADHOC and a trial attendee, said the trial raised questions if Chhun was getting a fair shot at justice and whether the court was open to exculpatory evidence to support the unionist’s case.
“I have no hope that the court will provide justice to Rong Chhun,” he said.
Senkaruna said the arrest of Rong Chhun was politically motivated and that the charges against him should be dropped.
The trial was adjourned on Friday and will resume on February 3.