Despite Dearth of Evidence, More Protesters Jailed

In its second controversial snap decision in two days, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday sentenced four protesters to a year behind bars for obstructing public officials just 24 hours after they were arrested for demonstrating outside the court.

Activist monk Soeung Hai, Boeng Kak resident Heng Pich, Boeng Kak evictee Im Srey Touch and Puong Sopheap of Phnom Penh’s Thma Koul neighborhood were convicted by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court after failing to comply with police orders to disperse from outside the court on Tuesday.

Residents of the Boeng Kak and Borei Keila communities gather outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday in support of protesters who were arrested outside the court Tuesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Residents of the Boeng Kak and Borei Keila communities gather outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday in support of protesters who were arrested outside the court Tuesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The quartet had been protesting for the release of seven Boeng Kak activists, who were detained Monday after dragging a bed onto Monivong Boulevard in front of City Hall to protest the flooding of their neighborhood.

Those seven were sentenced to a year in prison Tuesday for obstructing traffic.

The four convicted Wednesday were held overnight at municipal police headquarters before facing a closed-door questioning by deputy municipal prosecutor Kol Bol, who then recommended the charges to Presiding Judge Khy Chhai.

After a trial lasting no more than four hours, the group was convicted and sentenced at about 7 p.m. last night.

“They were charged under Article 504 of the criminal code and are sentenced…to one year in prison each and fined two million riel [about $500] for obstructing public officials,” Judge Chhai announced in the courtroom.

During proceedings, Judge Chhai dismissed the defendants’ claims that they did not hear authorities’ orders Monday to move away from the courthouse within 20 minutes.

“The answers they gave were just an excuse and there was no evidence that the court could believe,” he said, also accusing the group of insulting officials and using violence.

However, one of the two witnesses called by prosecutors was unable to identify any of the four as being directly involved in any incident outside the courthouse.

In response to questioning from a member of the defendants’ legal team, traffic police officer Hay Vet told the court: “I did not see them doing it…I was busy directing the traffic and I was not paying attention to them.”

The other witness, Prampi Makara district police officer Tep Saroeun, admitted under questioning that he had not seen the group use violence against authorities.

At one stage, the court displayed images of monk Soeung Hai, who was defrocked prior to his court appearance, at various other demonstrations including at a recent protest outside the Vietnamese Embassy where he led the burning of that country’s flag.

Ham Sunrith, one of the lawyers for the four, said the clips should be regarded as irrelevant and argued that the prosecution witnesses’ responses supported his clients’ case.

“There is no evidence to show that they obstructed public officials,” Mr. Sunrith said. “In the video clip there were no images showing them obstructing the authorities.”

After the court announced its decision, all four rallied against the injustice of the verdict before they were taken away and transported to Prey Sar prison.

Many of their relatives and friends waiting outside the court building were reduced to tears on hearing the outcome.

Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor at rights group Licadho, slammed the decision, saying that it flew in the face of evidence presented to the court.

“This conviction is to break the spirit of protesters…. It has shown that the court is not independent in our Cambodia,” he said.

Also Wednesday, a group of 30 local civil society organizations released a joint statement condemning the sentences meted out to the seven Boeng Kak activists on Tuesday.

“The targeted arrest, conviction and sentencing of the Boeng Kak Lake community representatives won’t resolve anything, on the contrary it will further raise international awareness and solidarity for their cause,” Ee Sarom, executive director of urban housing NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut, said in the statement.

“The government needs to realize that citizens’ grievances raised through peaceful protests have to be addressed.”

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