About 100 anti-eviction activists protested at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday, demanding the arrest of local officials, including Daun Penh district governor Sok Sambath, whom they accuse of orchestrating a violent attack on a peaceful vigil last month that left several women injured.
The protesters, mostly women, attempted to hand the court more evidence to back up their claims that they were assaulted by thugs working for Daun Penh district officials. The court, however, told them to take their complaint to the National Police.
About 30 protesters were demonstrating peacefully against the disputed results of July’s national election on the night of September 22 at Wat Phnom when riot police and dozens of thugs in civilian clothes set upon them with electric prods, batons, sticks and slingshots. The thugs also attacked journalists and rights workers at the scene.
Several people required treatment in the hospital after the attack.
Some of the protesters filed a lawsuit with the municipal court earlier this month accusing four officials of orchestrating the attack: Daun Penh district deputy governor Sok Penhvuth, district order chief Kim Vutha, district deputy police chief Nhem Sao Nol and district counselor Pech Socheata. They have since laid blame on the district’s governor, Mr. Sambath, as well.
One of the protesters, Tep Vanny, said Mr. Sambath and Mr. Penhvuth bore the greatest responsibility for the attack and urged municipal court president Chiv Keng to arrest them.
“Mr. Keng has to resign from his position if he does not arrest and sentence Mr. Sambath and Mr. Penhvuth,” she said outside the court.
The protesters had come with new evidence, including video and photographs of their attackers taken on the night of the incident.
The men, many wielding sticks, are all wearing identical blue pants that match the uniforms of the Daun Penh security guards—a militia of sorts employed to suppress peaceful protests in the district.
In one photo distributed by the protesters, Ms. Socheata is seen walking next to a man, who has three Icom radios and a slingshot, and who appear to be coordinating the thugs and police.
On the night of the attack, a truckload of the thugs still armed with batons was seen leaving the scene of the attack at Wat Phnom and drove into the nearby Daun Penh district office compound.
Despite meeting Thursday with municipal court deputy prosecutor Meas Chanpiseth, the protesters said they were denied the chance to submit their evidence related to the attack and were, instead, told to take it to the National Police.
“We do not trust the court,” protester Kong Chantha said after the meeting. “If Mr. Chiv Keng does not arrest the criminals, he has to be removed from his position.”
Mr. Keng and Mr. Chanpiseth could not be reached for comment.
According to a letter obtained Thursday, the court handed the case off to the National Police on October 16, five days after it was filed with the court.
The letter is signed by Mr. Chanpiseth.
“The prosecutor has decided to send [the case file] to His Excellency the general commissioner of the National Police [Neth Savoeun] to investigate and collect evidence and then send it back to the prosecutor at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to follow according to procedure,” the letter reads.
Mr. Savoeun is married to a niece of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Lieutenant General Kirth Chantharith, spokesman for the National Police, said only that police would investigate the case.
Ny Chakrya, head of monitoring for human rights group Adhoc, said there was no good reason why the police should be handling the investigation instead of the court.
“It’s the wrong procedure for the court to reject the…evidence because they [the defendants] first filed their complaint with the court, so the court should lead the investigation,” he said.
“The court has to arrest the perpetrators who committed the crime, but the problem is whether the court has the will to conduct the case,” he added. “It should not be difficult to arrest the provocateurs because there is a lot of strong evidence.”