Court Again Denies Opposition Activists Bail

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court once again denied bail to five opposition party activists and officials who have been jailed on charges of “insurrection” in the months since a violent brawl broke out at a July 15 protest in Phnom Penh.

Earlier this month, the court issued summons for the five members of the CNRP to appear in court for what was expected to be a trial over the insurrection that allegedly occurred at an opposition-led protest near Freedom Park.

Senior opposition official Meach Sovannara is led away from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday after being denied bail once again. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Senior opposition official Meach Sovannara is led away from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday after being denied bail once again. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Each of the five, a group that includes senior CNRP official Meach Sovannara, have previously been denied bail by both the municipal court and the Appeal Court, but their lawyers Thursday requested a new bail hearing, delaying the trial.

The hearing was held behind closed doors, but Presiding Judge Taing Sunlay said by telephone Thursday evening that he once again decided to reject the bail requests.

“We did not allow any of them out on bail,” the judge said. “We will continue to try this case on January 8.”

Judge Sunlay said the case “is not connected to anything political,” declining to comment further.

Besides Mr. Sovannara, the opposition party members denied bail were Chbar Ampov district councilor Soum Puthy and party activists Ouk Pich Samnang, Tep Narin and Ke Khim.

Chan Chen, who represented Mr. Sovannara, said the court deemed his client not worthy of receiving bail.

“The reason the court did not allow the defendants bail is because their characteristics are not good,” Mr. Chen said. “Meach Sovannara wants bail because he wants to see his aging mother, but the court said his attitude is not good.”

However, Chin Lyda, the lawyer for Soum Puthy and Ke Khim, said the court refused the five CNRP members bail because they would continue to be politically active.

“The reason the court did not grant the defendants bail is because they understand from the hearing that Meach Sovannara and Tep Narin said that when they leave the prison, they will participate in social work,” he said.

Before entering the courtroom in the morning, Mr. Sovannara told reporters that he hoped Prime Minister Hun Sen would intervene to secure his release from jail now that tensions between the CNRP and ruling CPP have ebbed.

“The political problem is finished today and Mr. Hun Sen will bring justice for us because this is a political issue and it is not a criminal case,” Mr. Sovannara said.

“We have evidence that [the insurrection claims] are not true and that this is a political case,” he added.

“The political situation is finished and with the culture of conversation between Mr. Hun Sen and [CNRP President] Sam Rainsy, they will discuss things with each other and I have requested to be released on bail.”

Outside the court, as the hearings proceeded, about 200 activists gathered in front of the court to protest for the release of the five. After the decision was handed down, Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho who was among the activists, criticized the decision.

“We think the court should grant them bail, because they have permanent addresses and real jobs,” he said as other activists cried and shouted against the decision.

“For Meach Sovannara, he is brave enough to leave 10 million riel [about $2,500] with the court and to leave his passports with the court, so according the law, there are enough conditions fulfilled to allow him out on bail,” he said.

Mr. Sam Ath noted that 13 other opposition members charged with insurrection after July 15 had been let out on bail and said the last five are being kept as bargaining chips in ongoing talks over changes to the national election law.

“It is about the negotiations over the election law, so those five people are tools of the negotiators,” he said.

The alleged insurrection at the July 15 protest occurred when opposition protesters and the notorious Daun Penh district security guards—who had for months violently enforced a government ban on public gatherings—began brawling on Phnom Penh’s Norodom Boulevard.

It was the first time that the protesters had fought back against the guards, some of whom were severely beaten as they attempted to flee the area of the protest.

In the many protests around Freedom Park in the months before, protesters were quick to flee the baton-wielding guards, who maintained an eerie anonymity by always wearing full-faced black motorcycle helmets.

Seven opposition lawmakers, who were still boycotting their seats in parliament, were arrested and jailed in the week following the July 15 protest, but were released along with a lower-level CNRP official after a political deal was reached on July 22.

The deal, signed by Mr. Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen, led the CNRP to end its 10-month boycott of its 55 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly.

Mr. Sovannara was suddenly arrested in October amid a breakdown in negotiations over the creation of the new National Election Committee, which was the centerpiece of the July 22 deal.

In front of the court Thursday, 25-year-old Khun Naroeun, a CNRP member, said the government’s continued efforts to repress opposition political activity through the courts would prove to be a death knell for the ruling CPP in the 2018 national election.

“Leaders like this cause our Khmer people great suffering,” Mr. Naroeun said. “We will not allow them to lead the country like this next time, and we are going to change the leaders of the government at the next mandate.”

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