One of three men on trial for the savage beating of two opposition lawmakers last year admitted in court on Thursday that he and his co-defendants were members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit, a claim vigorously denied by officials in the past.
Chay Sarith, 33; Mao Hoeun, 34; and Suth Vanny, 45, have been charged with intentional violence with aggravating circumstances and intentional property damage with aggravating circumstances for their role in the attack on CNRP lawmakers Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Saphea outside the National Assembly in October.
Under questioning at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday by Choung Chou Ngy, one of the plaintiff’s lawyers, Mr. Sarith reluctantly admitted that he was part of the Prime Minister Bodyguard Unit (PMBU).
“Yes, I am,” Mr. Sarith said, declining to name his superior officer but later saying that he worked alongside the other men on trial.
“They worked with me in the bodyguard unit,” he said.
Mr. Chamroeun and Mr. Saphea were dragged from their cars and pummeled outside the National Assembly on October 26 as they attempted to exit the compound during a pro-CPP protest demanding the removal of deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha as the Assembly’s vice president.
Mr. Sarith rejected the charge of damaging property but admitted to causing intentional violence, detailing the beating he delivered to Mr. Saphea. The crimes carry a combined prison sentence of up to 10 years.
The bodyguard told the court that he had wandered over to observe the protest at around 7:30 a.m.
“I was only standing and observing, and I did not participate in the demonstration,” Mr. Sarith said.
He said he became enraged when Mr. Saphea leaned out of his car window and insulted him around noon.
“When he stopped, he opened the window and shouted. He scolded us: ‘You guys are Yuon puppets. What did you come here for? You came here to demonstrate for the Yuons in the Assembly, didn’t you?’” he said, using a sometimes derogatory term for Vietnamese people.
“I opened his car door and punched him once in the face and then dragged him from the car. He fell, and I kicked his body once more,” Mr. Sarith said, adding that heat, exhaustion and hunger were to blame for his anger.
Mr. Sarith said he had endured such deprivations for five hours at a protest he was not even participating in because he was “collecting” information, but declined to say who the intelligence was for.
Before Mr. Sarith admitted to being a member of the PMBU, another lawyer for the plaintiffs, Sam Sokong, was repeatedly stalled by objections from deputy prosecutor Sin Virak as he attempted to question Mr. Sarith about the nature of his role.
“Where are the headquarters of the bodyguard unit you work at, and who is the commander there?” Mr. Sakong asked, at which point Mr. Virak argued that the line of questioning was irrelevant.
“Even though he worked for that unit, that he committed a crime is an individual matter. If we say something that affects the unit, it will affect the state establishment,” he said.
Presiding Judge Heng Sokna agreed that knowing the defendant’s job, place of work and duties were all facts that were relevant to the case.
The inquiry into the beating has been marred by accusations of political bias since it was announced that the eight-man investigative team would be made up entirely of CPP officials.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) first identified the men as members of Mr. Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit in a late January report on the deteriorating political situation in Cambodia.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, said on Thursday that the blocking of questions by the deputy prosecutor and judge was proof of the court’s bias.
“There’s no doubt that the prosecutor and the judge are working hand-in-glove in a political case like this,” he said in an email.
Mr. Saphea, who boycotted the hearing along with Mr. Chamroeun, said that seeking justice through the Cambodian legal system was futile.
“I have no faith in the court,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Taylor O’Connell)