The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Saturday charged political activist Ouk Pich Samnang with intentional violence, causing damage to public property and obstructing the work of authorities after he drove his tuk-tuk through a security barricade near Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house during a protest last week.
Eighteen protesters were injured on October 20 when more than 100 villagers representing evicted families from Preah Vihear province attempted to deliver a petition to the prime minister’s house and came up against metal barricades and dozens of Daun Penh district security guards, who used clubs and stun guns to beat back the demonstrators.
Deputy municipal court prosecutor Sieng Sok said he issued a warrant for Mr. Pich Samnang’s arrest because of the public and violent nature of the offense.
“It was a flagrant crime, as he broke through police barricades and injured five district security guards during the protest,” he said. “We charged him with intentional violence, causing damage and preventing public authorities from carrying out their duty.”
Deputy municipal police chief Chuon Narin confirmed Mr. Pich Samnang’s arrest and said he had been sent to Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison for pretrial detention.
Kim Vutha, chief of the notoriously violent Daun Penh security guards, said he had filed the complaint that led to Mr. Pich Samnang’s arrest because five of his guards were injured in the clash.
“Our security officers are still recovering from their injuries, so we must let the court take action in accordance with the law,” he said.
As Mr. Pich Samnang drove the tuk-tuk packed with protesters to the roadblock last week, other protesters flung water from plastic water bottles at the guards on the other side. After a brief stand off, the district guards charged through the barricades, beating at least one protester repeatedly with their clubs as he lay on the ground.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho, said the court’s handling of the incident failed to take into account the heavy-handed role of the security guards, who also beat Mr. Pich Samnang over the head and destroyed his tuk-tuk.
“He was beaten up by the security guards and had his property destroyed and now the court has charged him and sent him to prison, which is a lesson in impunity that will encourage perpetrators to commit more and more and more offenses,” he said.
Mr. Pich Samnang has been a stalwart at demonstrations in Phnom Penh since last year’s national election, and his tuk-tuk is often positioned near the front of rallies and marches led by the opposition CNRP—or whichever group happens to be protesting that day.
His wife, Tith Narin, said Mr. Pich Samnang was an activist for the Funcinpec party beginning in the late 1980s and was present at a 1997 demonstration with opposition leader Sam Rainsy that was the target of a grenade attack that killed 16 people.
“He was a Funcinpec supporter and participated in protests in 1997 in front of the National Assembly, but he survived the grenade,” Ms. Narin said Sunday. “But after that, he quit all activism.”
Some 16 years later, however, as the opposition CNRP surged in popularity following the national election in July last year, Mr. Pich Samnang returned to his activist roots, she said.
“He always advocates for social justice…he doesn’t care about family,” she said. “He would leave home early in the morning and come back in the evening.”
“He said he was sick and tired of today’s government because it used violence against its people and suppress people’s rights,” Ms. Narin said of her husband. “He supports the CNRP because he hopes that it will bring people justice.”
Nhay Chamroeun, a CNRP lawmaker and youth leader, said Mr. Pich Samnang previously spent time in prison in the late 1980s for his activism against the government.
“He had been a Funcinpec supporter and was put behind bars during that time,” Mr. Chamroeun said, adding that his latest arrest was again an attempt to quiet a voice of dissent.
“The government arrested him because he participated in the fight for social justice and to help innocent people to fight for their rights,” he said.