The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday charged two defrocked monks with participation in a criminal association after they were arrested Wednesday outside a pagoda carrying bags full of flags attached to bamboo poles, officials said Thursday.
Khit Vannak, 26, and Sang Kosal, 19, were charged under article 499 of the Criminal Code for attempting to join villagers from Preah Vihear province who planned to march to the National Assembly and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house to call attention to their land dispute in the northern province, according to Um Sopheak, deputy prosecutor at the court.
“I charged the two monks with participation in a criminal association because they were planning to be involved with Thursday’s protest,” Mr. Sopheak said.
“The charge is not related to any previous protests,” he said, refusing to answer any further questions.
The maximum penalty under Article 499 is five years in prison.
Ham Sunrith, the lawyer for the two monks, said the pair had been sent to Prey Sar prison last night to await trial after being questioned by Investigating Judge Nou Veasna and Mr. Sopheak.
Sitting handcuffed in the halls of the courthouse Thursday, the defrocked monks, who are ethnic Khmer Krom and grew up in Vietnam, said that they were questioned at length about their involvement in past public demonstrations, contrary to the prosecutor’s assertion.
“The deputy prosecutor asked us about our intentions Thursday but also about our involvement in previous protests,” said Mr. Vannak, who moved to Phnom Penh from Vietnam about three years ago.
In particular, the pair said they were questioned about their involvement in protests in front of the Vietnamese Embassy last month, where that country’s flag was burned and further violence was threatened.
“We were never involved in burning flags or violence…. We only joined the protest to ask the Vietnamese government to apologize for claiming that Kampuchea Krom never belonged to Cambodia. We joined the protests because the Vietnamese have created a fake history,” Mr. Vannak said.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor at rights group Licadho, said he believed the charges against the two are due to their links with activist monk Soeung Hai, who was defrocked and jailed for one year Wednesday evening for protesting outside Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday against the arrest of seven activists the day before.
Mr. Hai in October led the burning of the Vietnamese flags in front of the embassy.
“I think that the accusations are because the two monks are involved with [Soeung Hai] and relating with previous demonstrations because they stayed in the same house in the pagoda,” said Mr. Sam Ath.
“I understand the accusation is just a trick by authorities to find them guilty because they joined demonstrations outside the Vietnamese Embassy,” he said. “They cannot use the protests as an excuse to arrest them because there were many people there and it was a while ago so they just found a new event to take action against the two monks.”