Authorities denied there were violent attacks on activists outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday and said there would be no investigation, despite video evidence clearly showing district security guards and plainclothes men chasing an opposition CNRP activist and beating him inside a shopping mall.
Dozens had congregated outside the court on Thursday morning in support of activist Tep Vanny, who received a 30-month prison sentence on Thursday for her role in a 2013 protest that turned violent. The case is widely thought to be a politically motivated attempt by the government to stifle dissent in the run-up to elections.
Activists from the capital’s eviction-hit Boeng Kak and Borei Keila neighborhoods were peacefully chanting and holding posters of Ms. Vanny when Prampi Makara district security guards began dragging and kicking protesters across the road at about 9:30 a.m.
“They pushed me to the ground and carried me by my legs and beat me. One of the guards punched me in the face,” protester Bov Sophea said.
“They kicked a pregnant woman from Borei Keila,” another protester, Song Sreyleap, told reporters earlier in front of the courthouse. “They pushed and kicked her in the belly.”
As activists and guards scuffled, CNRP activist Mao Socheat shoved a guard and was then chased by about a dozen men into City Mall. He said he had been attempting to intervene on the women’s behalf.
After turning into the Lucky Burger fast-food restaurant, Mr. Socheat was viciously punched and kicked by guards and plainclothes thugs before other activists intervened.
“They wanted to throw Sreyleap over the steel fence,” Mr. Socheat said when contacted after the attack. “I ran there to prevent them because it looked so bad.”
“I heard their chief order them to beat me. I just ran past the moto parking area into City Mall. I thought they wouldn’t follow me when there are many people inside,” he said. “They consider, and beat me as an animal. My back and the whole of my body hurts.”
Despite video of the attack racking up hundreds of thousands of views online within hours, Horn Vibol, deputy police chief of Prampi Makara district, denied that any violence had taken place.
“No clash happened there,” Mr. Vibol said, adding that protesters had “affected public order” by disturbing court officials with their noise.
There would be no investigation into the day’s events, he added.
Contradicting clear video evidence of security guards beating the CNRP activist, Mr. Vibol denied that any attack had occurred and claimed the guards were simply “chasing him” for answers because he had “insulted” them.
Witnesses at the scene offered different accounts of the incident.
“I saw the guards chase a protester and they were yelling ‘Thief! Thief! Thief!’ and the other women who tried to help him were saying: ‘He’s not a thief,’” said Rath Bunna, 49, who sells chestnuts outside the mall.
“They just beat him. I think if he had not run away he would have been beaten to death,” she said.
Rupert Abbott, a human rights expert who has worked extensively in Cambodia, said perpetrators of such violent attacks are unlikely to face justice.
“The incident is shocking, but just the latest example of the para police’s trademark thuggery,” Mr. Abbott said in an email. “There should be an investigation and the perpetrators should be held accountable. However, in light of the long list of examples of impunity, justice in this case seems unlikely.”
Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said the attack could be an ominous sign of things to come as commune and national elections edge closer.
“Assuming that the CNRP is still around when we get to elections and able to field candidates, then expect the kinds of violence from the CPP and its supporters that we saw in the 2003 and 2008 elections,” he said in an email.
“It’s not going to be pretty.”