Lawyers for 11 opposition CNRP activists facing insurrection charges Thursday walked out of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in protest after the judges refused to let three CNRP lawmakers facing the same charges observe what was supposed to be the first full day of hearings.
Together, 11 activists and seven lawmakers are charged with either leading or participating in an insurrection, following a July 15 demonstration at Freedom Park during which several Daun Penh district security guards were injured—at least five were severely beaten—in a scuffle with protesters. Five of the activists remain in detention.
As Thursday’s hearing got under way, lawyers for the 39 plaintiffs in the case asked the three-judge panel to order the charged lawmakers, who are not facing trial but showed up to observe the day’s proceedings, to leave the room.
After deliberating for about 20 minutes, the judges agreed to grant the request. Although only three of the charged lawmakers were present—Ho Vann, Mu Sochua and Long Ry—Presiding Judge Taing Sunlay addressed his remarks to all seven.
“We will not allow the seven lawmakers to listen in the hearing room because they have been charged in the same case, so please, Her Excellency and His Excellencies, leave the courtroom,” Judge Sunlay said.
Angered by the decision, Chhoung Choungy, one of the activists’ lawyers, said the whole defense team would be leaving the room as well.
“If the judge decides like this, we will leave the courtroom,” he said. “When the presiding judge decides to dismiss the seven lawmakers from the courtroom like this, the hearing is not public.”
At that point, Judge Sunlay postponed the hearing without setting a new date.
Shortly after walking out of the courthouse, Ms. Sochua denounced the judges’ decision to order her to leave because she had attended in her capacity as a lawmaker.
“Joining the hearings is the duty and the right of lawmakers,” she said. “Not allowing lawmakers to join and listen to a public hearing, I think this is a violation of the Constitution. No law mentions not letting lawmakers listen to a public hearing.”
Ms. Sochua vowed to defy the order and sit in on the next hearing whenever a date was set.
Not long after the judges postponed Thursday’s hearing, deputy prosecutor Keo Socheat suggested to the panel that it consider appointing new lawyers for the defendants should their current lawyers continue to boycott the court.
Oeur Narith, an assistant to Ms. Sochua and one of the defendants in Thursday’s case, said he would not accept any other lawyers.
“I am a defendant, so I have the right to have the lawyers I choose,” he said. “If there will be another hearing and they force me to have another lawyer, I will absolutely not accept.”
All the defendants in the case deny any wrongdoing.
About 300 people protested outside the court during the hearing to demand the release of the five opposition activists still in detention as well as 14 others also in jail.
The 14 include monks as well as a group of seven anti-eviction activists from Phnom Penh’s Boeng Kak neighborhood who were sentenced in November to a year in prison for dragging a bed frame onto Monivong Boulevard during a protest.