As several hundred garment workers from the SL Garment factory pelted police with rocks during a protest near the Stung Meanchey pagoda in November, Men Sok Sambath, a 14-year-old scrap collector, decided to join the crowd.
“I saw other people throwing rocks at the [police] truck, so I threw three rocks and then walked away back into the pagoda,” Sambath said of the incident Wednesday, sitting in front of his mother’s one-story shack in Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey commune.
The clashes between the protesters and police—who were blocking the workers from marching to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s residence—left one woman dead from police gunfire, at least nine injured and 39 people arrested.
But only two of those detained were ultimately charged, including Sambath, who is facing 11 years in prison if he is found guilty of aggravated intentional violence, damage to public property and insulting civil servants for his alleged role in the clashes. Phnom Penh Municipal Court is set to hand down its decision on Friday.
During the trial, the only evidence against Sambath, a slight boy with learning disabilities and epilepsy, was a video of the teenager salvaging scrap metal from a smoldering motorbike.
“I did not burn the motorbike, but just went to grab the leftovers,” said Sambath, now 15, who has been collecting scraps and trash to sell since he was five.
Sambath then walked away from the scene before returning to Stung Meanchey pagoda later in the day, where he says he was beaten by police and hauled away.
“They used electric batons to hit me, although they did not electrocute me, just hit me,” he said. “They also kicked me many times when they arrested me. I was very afraid and surprised when they arrested me. They hit me at the district station as well, punched and slapped me four or five times in the face.”
Sambath, who makes around 5,000 riel, or $1.25 a day, salvaging other people’s trash, was released on bail on January 10 after spending nearly two months locked up in Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison.
Sitting alongside her son Wednesday, Sambath’s widowed mother, Uon Pov, who works as a dishwasher to support her family, described a difficult childhood.
“He rarely had friends, he always walked alone,” she said. “He’s different from other people. He is not well. He often acts strangely.”
Sambath had been repeatedly warned by his family to stay away from the protest, but Ms. Pov said her son’s childlike curiosity led him to get caught up in the clash in November.
“The family tried to stop him going, as we heard about the crackdown. We told him as he was picking rubbish ‘Do not go anywhere, there is fighting at the bridge,’ but then he vanished.”
The next time they saw him was when they turned on their television that night to see footage of his arrest.
According to Sambath, he spent two days at the district police station before being transferred to prison, where he shared a cell with around 30 other men. Apart from being punched in the face during a prison brawl—a case of mistaken identity—Sambath said he was treated well by guards, who even let him play football.
But when his mother would visit, Sambath seemed far from happy.
“He was always having chest pains after the arrest,” said Ms. Pov. “Whenever I’d go to see him he would be crying, saying ‘I miss you.’”
Following his arrest, rights groups said Sambath, along with Vanny Vannan, 19, the other defendant in the case, was denied the legal protections appropriate for children under international law.
Naly Pilorge, director of rights group Licadho, said Wednesday that the charges against Sambath should be dropped.
“In light of his age and limited mental capacity…the court should drop the charges against the young offender as it is obvious he did not have understanding of the situation or his actions during the time of the event,” Ms. Pilorge said.
Along with the criminal charges he is facing, 14 municipal police and fire brigade officers are suing the duo for up to $50,000 each for injuries they suffered on November 12.
“The authorities try to ask for compensation, but we barely have enough money to support ourselves. How can we be expected to pay that?” said Ms. Pov.
If he is imprisoned again, Sambath said he would miss the simpler things in life.
“I’m really happy at home because I can watch TV, play games and do anything I want. I can walk all day,” he said.
One day, Sambath said he hopes to fix motorbikes for a living.
Her eyes welling up, Ms. Pov said she has little hope for her son if they are forced to part ways.
“Without me, he’ll have a very bad life.”