Ten members of a government-branded terrorist group, Khmer National Liberation Front (KNLF), who are on trial for incitement, renounced their affiliations and praised the government on Monday, crediting a jailed former ambassador to South Korea for their change of heart.
The men were arrested in October 2014 and accused of planning to “incite and cause violence in Phnom Penh,” though KNLF president Sam Serey claimed they were merely planning a peaceful demonstration in front of the Vietnamese Embassy.
At a hearing on Monday at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the men said they had believed the protest was legal and felt they had been duped by Mr. Serey.
“I would like to inform the court that I am a victim of being cheated by the propaganda of Khmer National Liberation Front,” said defendant Chhun Chhat. “I was used as a tool by the group to commit illegal activities.”
Mr. Chhat said he met Mr. Serey in Thailand, where he was working as a security guard. Mr. Serey later encouraged Mr. Chhat to join the upcoming protest.
“Did you know that the activity you were planning would cause chaos to the society?” Judge Yin Saroeun asked Mr. Chhat.
“I did not understand the situation clearly and thought our protest was just freedom of expression,” Mr. Chhat said.
The KNLF advocates freeing “the Cambodian people from the Vietnamese neo-colony and dictatorship regime under Hun Sen,” according to its website. Mr. Serey says its goals are peaceful, but the government branded the group a terrorist organization in 2012 and has imprisoned several of its members since.
Like the other defendants, Mr. Chhat credited Suth Dina, Cambodia’s former ambassador to South Korea who is awaiting trial in a large-scale embezzlement case, for showing him the error of his ways and the goodness of the ruling party.
“He advised me about political matters and helped me understand the policies” of Prime Minister Hun Sen, Mr. Chhat said. “After that…I wrote a letter requesting to join and serve the Cambodian People’s Party.”
Defendant Lat Liheng said he had been introduced to Mr. Serey and the KNLF while working as a construction worker in Bangkok, attending a seminar in which Mr. Serey explained his version of Cambodian history and politics.
“I thought he was a good person, so I joined,” Mr. Liheng said. Two of Mr. Serey’s associates, whom he named only as Mr. Vy and Mr. Thy, gave him 200,000 riel, or roughly $50, to travel to Phnom Penh for the protest.
But Mr. Liheng said he now saw that the group had used him “in order to gain political benefits in both national and international politics and in order for Cambodian people to hate the government and the court.”
Mr. Liheng said his conversations with Mr. Dina had convinced him that Mr. Serey and opposition leader Sam Rainsy were to blame for his plight, and said he planned on suing the pair.
“I would like to file complaint against His Excellency Sam Rainsy and president Sam Serey. They were the ones who incited us and caused us to be jailed,” he said.
Defendant Liv Yi said he, too, planned on suing the pair for $1 million each.
Mr. Yi said Mr. Rainsy was involved because of relationships among members in the lower levels of the CNRP and KNLF.
All of the 10 defendants are listed as senior officials in Mr. Serey’s newly formed “government-in-exile” based in Denmark, including Mr. Chatt (vice minister of security and national defense), Mr. Liheng (vice-commander-in-chief of security and national defense) and Mr. Yi (minister of transportation). Mr. Serey says the movement, which began on October 23, aims to convince the U.N. to revoke Cambodia’s seat at the assembly.
But Mr. Yi said he had been appointed without being asked.
“I did not have any knowledge of the appointment,” he said, adding that he now believed Mr. Hun Sen was the “real patriot” and vowed to “protect the government without any conditions.”
Mr. Serey, who is charged with masterminding the incitement, claimed by email that the men had joined his exile government voluntarily and said he was not surprised by the change of heart in his former colleagues.
“Hun Sen bribed them to do that,” he wrote from his home in Denmark. “Hun Sen has spent millions [of] dollars to destroy me and KNLF so far. All KNLF members, they do that because they want to be released from prison.”
Mr. Serey vowed to continue his fight in spite of the defections.
“They have guns and tanks and I have books and pens,” he wrote.
For his part, Mr. Rainsy said in an email on Monday that he had “nothing to do with any member of that group.”
(Additional reporting by Ben Paviour)