The trial of 11 opposition figures accused of leading or participating in an insurrection began at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday, with the prosecutor questioning just two of the suspects.
Oeur Narith, an assistant to CNRP public affairs director Mu Sochua, and Khin Chamreoun, head of the CNRP Youth wing in Phnom Penh, were called by Presiding Judge Lim Makaron to give their version of events on July 15, when a protest to open the heavily fortified Freedom Park became a brawl between district security guards and opposition supporters.
The accused opposition figures face prison sentences of up to 30 years if found guilty.
Mr. Narith reiterated his claims that he neither committed nor encouraged violence in the fracas, which marked the first time that opposition supporters fought back against the Daun Penh district security guards, who had been used to brutally disperse demonstrations after the contested election of July 2013.
“I went to Naga bridge to join [the protest] to ask to free the Freedom Park,” Mr. Narith told a packed gallery in the courtroom.
Video footage that circulated online following the incident shows opposition figures placing a giant orange banner reading “Free the Freedom Park” on a barbed wire barricade at the eastern edge of the park. Soon after, security guards tore down the banner and began jabbing at opposition supporters with batons.
After months of taking beatings from the notoriously violent guards, whose targets included women and monks, during the post-election tension, the opposition supporters fought back, isolating a number of guards and severely beating them.
These actions have been labeled an attempted insurrection, with seven CNRP lawmakers jailed over the charges and released following the July political deal struck between opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Mr. Narith said on Friday that his actions on the day of the protest were far from that of a man intent on insurrection.
“I shouted ‘don’t use violence’ when I saw security guards fight the people,” he said. “Moreover, I helped an injured security guard and protected him from some people attacking him.”
Eyewitness accounts and footage of the melee show a number of senior CNRP figures attempting to quell the violence, with at least one lawmaker using himself as a human shield to protect the district guards.
At a press conference in the days following the clash, senior CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun pushed the insurrection narrative, showing clips where sacks full of poles were seen being emptied onto the road. Mr. Vun claimed that these sticks were brought to the protest by the CNRP as part of a premeditated plan of violence.
However, on the day of the alleged insurrection, men wearing the dark blue uniforms of the district security guards were seen taking sacks of poles from a municipal truck and distributing them among their ranks before marching toward the already restive crowd.
“I saw security guards carried black plastic bats and bamboo sticks, too,” Mr. Narith said in court on Friday.
Mr. Chamroeun, the CNRP youth leader, began his questioning just 15 minutes before the close of proceedings, telling the court his version of events, which closely mirrored that of Mr. Narith.
In the morning, the court heard—and rejected—bail requests from Ouk Pich Samnang and Tep Narin, two of the five CNRP figures that remain in prison.
Judge Makaron said the two would not be released because he believed they could not be trusted to respect the judicial process, citing the fact that they had failed to heed two police summons for questioning before their arrests.
Outside the courthouse, Meach Sovannara, chief of the opposition’s information department and the highest profile of the 11 activists on trial, said he hoped leaders of the CNRP and CPP could come to an agreement to end his incarceration.
“I think that the trial is being delayed for political reasons,” Mr. Sovannara said.
“Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha and Hun Sen will meet soon,” he added. “I hope that their negotiations will continue the culture of dialogue.”
The trial is set to resume on April 20.