Three bodyguards to Prime Minister Hun Sen convicted of viciously beating two opposition lawmakers last year were released from prison on Friday after a year in jail and still no sign of a broader investigation into allegations that the assault was orchestrated by commanding officers.
CNRP lawmakers Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Sophea were pulled out of their cars immediately after they left the National Assembly on October 26 and repeatedly stomped on and kicked in the face and body by several men in plain clothes.
Three men later identified as members of Mr. Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit turned themselves in a few days later and confessed to the attacks, though rights groups and opposition members dismissed them as scapegoats.
Chay Sarith, 33, Mao Hoeun, 34, and Suth Vanny, 45, said they attacked after the lawmakers hurled insults at them from their cars. The Phnom Penh municipal court convicted them of aggravated intentional violence in May and handed each man a four-year prison sentence suspended to one year including time served.
Nouth Savna, spokesman for the Interior Ministry’s prison department, said the trio walked out of Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison on Friday and that he hoped they would get their jobs back.
“We should not discriminate against the former prisoners,” he said. “We encourage them to go back and get jobs, but not to commit any more crimes.”
A spokesman for the prime minister’s bodyguard unit, Heng Dalin, said he did not know whether the men would be returning to the force.
The two lawmakers and their lawyers panned the prison sentences as soon as they were handed down for being far too light and immediately appealed.
Choung Choungy, one of their lawyers, said on Sunday that he has heard nothing from the Appeal Court about the case since.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin defended the delay.
“Whether it is illegal, it is not, because the law does not limit the time for an appeal,” he said.
“In general, the Appeal Court spends a little time on some cases and a long time on other cases. It depends on each case,” he added. “And you know, we have only one Appeal Court with cases from across the country, so they cannot hear the cases as fast as you would like.”
After the three bodyguards turned themselves in, the lawmakers and their defense team also lodged a complaint with the Interior Ministry urging it to continue investigating. Video footage of the attacks shows that it involved far more than three men.
Sam Sokong, another lawyer for the lawmakers, said that complaint also appears to have gone nowhere.
“I do not believe they have the will to investigate the other people who were behind this. If they wanted to investigate other people, they would have done it from the beginning,” he said. “It’s been more than a year but they have found only three people. And if those three men had not turned themselves in, there would be no arrests at all.”
A Human Rights Watch report on the case based on interviews with several sources said the men who attacked the lawmakers, far from being lone wolves, were part of a well-orchestrated operation by the bodyguard unit, which had nearly 200 men posted outside the National Assembly that day in plain clothes as part of an anti-opposition rally.
The rights group also slammed the trial that followed for blocking lawyers for the lawmakers from trying to find out how far up the chain of command the operation went, or simply for the bodyguards to give the name of their commanding officers.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached on Sunday.
Mr. Sophea said he feared for his safety now that his assailants were free and that the light sentences they received would only encourage more of the same violence.
“It encourages other people to find the opportunity to attack lawmakers,” he said. “It’s a bad example.”
The lawmaker said he would appeal the 1-year prison terms to the Supreme Court if necessary and compared the sentences to the 20 years the municipal court handed down to CNRP official Meach Sovannara last year for his alleged involvement in attacks on state security guards at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park the year before.
Mr. Sovannara and 10 other opposition figures and supporters were convicted of insurrection over a protest against the park’s closure that turned violent, even though the security officers could not identify any one of the defendants as their assailants.
“There are double standards in Cambodia’s judiciary,” Mr. Sophea said. “There is one for poor people and opposition politicians, and another for powerful people and ruling party politicians.”