Three opposition activists were sentenced to 20 years in prison and eight others received seven-year terms Tuesday over a 2014 clash between protesters and security guards at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park that was deemed an insurrection.
All but one of the defense lawyers boycotted Tuesday’s hearings after the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday announced that it would fast-track the trial. When about 25 judicial police entered the courtroom minutes after the judges retired to deliberate the verdict, the fate of the 11 became clear.
Presiding Judge Lim Makaron took about 10 minutes to conclude a case that has dragged on for more than a year.
“The court decides to sentence Meach Sovannara, Oeur Narith and Khin Chamroeun to 20 years in prison for leading an insurrection,” he announced.
Opposition activists Neang Sokhun, San Kimheng, Soum Puthy, Tep Narin, An Paktham, San Seyhak, Ouk Pich Samnang and Ke Khim were each sentenced to seven years in prison for joining the insurrection.
“The verdict handed down to my clients is unjust because we did not make our concluding arguments,” San Sudalen, the lone lawyer present for the defendants, said outside the court. “It is incorrect procedure.”
Contacted afterward, opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua rebuked the court over the verdict.
“[The] CNRP has always condemned any court decision made unjustly, and for this case we will continue to make the same condemnation,” she said via email. “All [indications] point to a court decision that is not based on evidence.”
Even so, Ms. Sochua predicted that the verdict would not dampen the public’s desire for a change to the political status quo.
“The people have spoken and will continue to speak loud and clear —they want change.”
After having heard testimony over two days from nine of the 39 government security guards acting as plaintiffs in the case, the court Tuesday expedited proceedings by having a clerk read statements from 16 more.
There was little variation in the 25 accounts from the guards: Each said they were deployed to maintain public order, did not use violence, and were mercilessly beaten by activists who had turned out to demand that the government reopen Freedom Park.
None of them identified any of the 11 defendants as having committed the violence that erupted after the baton-wielding guards tore down a banner that had been laid over a large coil of barbed wire surrounding the designated protest space.
A series of video clips were shown as evidence of the insurrection, including of CNRP lawmakers Ms. Sochua, Real Camerin and Ho Vann leading protesters to Naga Bridge, where the clash occurred, and of the protesters picking off a number of the guards for severe beatings.
After the hearing’s lunch break, Ms. Sudalen asked that the court view alternate clips of the protest, which had been hastily gathered. Deputy prosecutor Keo Socheat objected.
“What’s the point of your video clips? Watching them is a waste of time,” he said.
Judge Makaron, however, admitted the clips.
The first showed bags of wooden clubs being unloaded from a municipal utility truck and disseminated among the guards, who then headed toward the area where the protesters had gathered.
Mr. Socheat again interjected, asking: “How do we know that this clip is from July 15?”
The defense then showed part of a montage that was put together to mark one year since the insurrection, and was overlaid with a date July 15, 2015.
Mr. Socheat refuted the validity of the clip, saying: “This case is about violence that occurred on July, 15, 2014, but this clip is from July 15, 2015.”
Judge Makaron allowed the viewing before giving the defendants a final say, at which point they pled for a day’s delay because their lawyers were not present and they were not prepared for the case to come to a close.
“We request more time to bring clips that show the protest from beginning to end,” Mr. Chamroeun said.
Mr. Sovannara also asked for clarification of the charges of leading or joining an insurrectionary movement, which the criminal code describes as “any collective violence liable to endanger the institutions of the Kingdom of Cambodia or violate the integrity of national territory.”
“Can the court define the difference between a demonstration and an insurrection?” he said. “This is not an insurrection. The protesters did not use force to take control of the Information Ministry or any other government institution. This is a demonstration.”
Cheng Penghap, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, asked that the 11 be convicted of the insurrection charges, which carry a maximum jail terms of 30 years, as did Mr. Socheat, the prosecutor.
“This protest was planned. They held meetings before the protest,” Mr. Socheat said. “Their aim was to liberate Freedom Park.”
Given the floor to make her closing arguments, Ms. Sudalen, the lawyer for the defendants, said she, too, was unprepared for the case to be brought to a close and asked for a postponement.
Her request was denied, and the judges left the courtroom to deliberate.
When the judicial police began entering the room a few minutes later, Mr. Khim, who along with the other 10 defendants spent months in prison before receiving bail, showed his despair.
“Prey Sar,” he screamed, naming the prison on the outskirts of Phnom Penh.
The judges returned and delivered their verdict, which included thousands of dollars in compensation to each of the injured parties, then ordered the police to arrest the men and take them away.
Across the road from the court, at least six municipal police trucks loaded with officers in riot gear and six more crowd control trucks were parked inside the gates of Olympic Stadium.
As he was shoved into the police van, Mr. Khim let out a shriek of anguish.
Mr. Sovannara patted him on the back and said: “It’s just a game. It’s just a game.”