Three members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit were found guilty of aggravated intentional violence on Friday for savagely beating two opposition lawmakers last year but were handed suspended sentences that will see them walk free in less than six months.
“The court…has decided to sentence Chay Sarith, Mao Hoeun and Suth Vanny to four years…but they will serve only one year in prison and the remainder of the sentence is suspended,” Presiding Judge Heng Sokna announced at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday.
The three bodyguards were each ordered to pay 6 million riel (about $1,500) to the state and 40 million riel (about $10,000) to CNRP lawmakers Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Saphea.
The men were acquitted of charges of aggravated property damage and will be free in less than six months, accounting for time served.
“The defendants came to confess about their mistake with the court. So that was considered a mitigating circumstance,” Judge Sokna said in explaining the light sentence.
On October 26, Mr. Chamroeun and Mr. Saphea were dragged from their cars and viciously beaten as they attempted to exit the National Assembly compound during a protest demanding the removal of deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha as the Assembly’s vice president.
During the trial last month, the judge and prosecutor repeatedly blocked questions from the victims’ lawyer aimed at determining whether the bodyguards had acted on the orders of their superiors.
A report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Thursday described the investigation and trial as a “blatant cover-up,” citing senior military sources who said a large group of men were bussed to the protest from bodyguard unit bases. Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy Asia director, said on Friday that the case ended “just the way that the government wanted it to.”
“This sentence is all about trying to look tough while ensuring that these men are sent away for just enough time that public demands die away for a more thorough, in-depth investigation,” he said.
“There’s no escaping the conclusion that these three are the scapegoats designated to take the fall, and that the investigation is being truncated at their level so that none of their superiors are implicated.”
In keeping with their boycott of the trial, Mr. Chamroeun and Mr. Saphea were not present at the courthouse on Friday. Their lawyer, Sam Sokong, said the suspended sentence was grossly inadequate.
“The violence in front of the National Assembly was very cruel and brutal, and the violent perpetrators are military men who have roles in the bodyguard unit,” he said.
Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the sentence stood in stark contrast to the relentless judicial pursuit of rights activists and opposition figures.
“[T]he principle of equality before the law remains far from reality in Cambodia,” she said in an email. “Many human rights defenders and opposition supporters face disproportionately harsh sentences, for alleged crimes that lack any credible evidence.”
Ms. Sopheap also contrasted the bodyguards’ expedient trial to the government’s protracted pursuit of a wide-ranging group of activists and officials in connection with a sex scandal involving Mr. Sokha.
“In this case, three people have been convicted, but many other people who were involved in the attack, as clearly shown on video, did not even face trial.”
Correction: The conversion of court-ordered fines from riel to dollars was incorrect in a previous version of this story.