As a beaming Luon Sovath walked into the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for his sedition trial Tuesday, dozens of flag-waving supporters lining the sidewalk called for the charges against the activist monk to be dropped, while a throng of reporters pressed in on him.
In September, Luon Sovath was summoned to appear in court, along with U.S.-based dissident Sourn Serey Ratha, to face charges of incitement to commit a felony, plotting to commit an attack and disrupting last year’s national elections.
The charges stemmed from Mr. Serey Ratha organizing activists in Cambodia to hand out T-shirts urging people not to cast ballots and distribute flowers to soldiers along with stickers urging them to “turn your guns against the despot.”
In a statement released in the lead-up to the trial, 16 NGOs roundly criticized the court for linking Luon Sovath to Mr. Serey Ratha’s case.
But at about 9:30 a.m. Tuesday, an hour and a half after proceedings were scheduled to commence, Presiding Judge Top Chhun Heng opened the trial by saying that Luon Sovath’s charges could be separated from Mr. Serey Ratha’s case.
A few minutes later, deputy prosecutor Meas Chanpiseth announced that the summons issued for the monk was the result of a “misunderstanding” among court officials, and that charges against Luon Sovath had nothing to do with those against Mr. Serey Ratha.
“The hearing today does not involve Luon Sovath,” Judge Chhun Heng said.
In 2012, the municipal court charged Luon Sovath with incitement to commit a felony for his involvement in protests in Phnom Penh.
Luon Sovath says he met Mr. Serey Ratha only once, in the U.S. in 2011, and denies any role in his schemes. Speaking to reporters outside the court after the hearing Tuesday, the monk vowed to continue fighting to promote human rights.
“I will continue to help our society and the nation,” he said, before marching to Samakki Raingsey pagoda in Meanchey district with a contingent of supporters and fellow monks in tow.
Three other men involved in Tuesday’s trial—Im Phearun, 26; Serey Bunlong, 28; and Seng Sok Meng, 30—entered the court with far less fanfare.
Handcuffed and wearing prison-issued jumpsuits, the trio, charged with breaking the election law and joining an anti-government group for passing out Mr. Serey Ratha’s T-shirts in July last year, was escorted by guards into the courtroom, which had almost emptied following Luon Sovath’s exit.
During questioning, all three men denied being members of Mr. Serey Ratha’s Khmer People Power Movement, and said their only contact with the dissident had been via Facebook.
Mr. Serey Ratha, who lives in self-imposed exile in the U.S., admits to organizing both activities from abroad, but argues that neither act constituted a crime.
Their trial is scheduled to continue on December 9.
(Additional reporting by Neou Vannarin and Holly Robertson)
© 2014, All rights reserved.