An estimated 2,000 CNRP supporters gathered outside the Phnom Penh courthouse Tuesday, blocking traffic along Monireth Boulevard and defying a government ban on public gatherings, as opposition leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha were questioned over their alleged involvement in labor protests that turned violent earlier this month.
Apart from cheering for Mr. Sokha and Mr. Rainsy when they arrived at 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. respectively, the crowd spent most of the day quietly waiting for the CNRP leaders to emerge from the court, which they finally did shortly after 1:30 p.m. to rapturous applause.
“Thank you all compatriots who come to support us. The people must believe that justice will prevail over injustice,” Mr. Sokha said over a loudspeaker after emerging from the court with Mr. Rainsy, their hands clasped together above their heads.
Speaking later at the CNRP headquarters, Mr. Rainsy said: “Today we won.”
“Nobody can touch Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha,” he said.
“We went to the court because we want the world to know about the reality. We did nothing wrong. We just protected the people’s will through nonviolence,” Mr. Rainsy added.
Mr. Rainsy also said that the opposition party would not flout an Interior Ministry ban on marches and demonstrations “because we want to avoid [a] trap, [a] trap whereby the CPP want to find a pretext to use violence against us.”
“Currently we are facing a state of emergency, even though the CPP does not call it like that, but it is a de facto state of emergency,” Mr. Rainsy said. “And as soon as liberties are restored we will organize new rallies.”
Mr. Rainsy said that while backdoor talks between representatives of the CNRP and CPP have been ongoing, he foresaw no political settlement in the near future.
“At the level of working group, we have a representative who has met several times with a representative from the CPP,” he said. “So we have exchanged documents and proposals, but there is no agreement in view…. It is just testing the waters, testing the other side.”
Mr. Sokha said at the CNRP office that the municipal court prosecutors who had conducted the questioning did not say whether they would charge the opposition leaders or drop the case, but could call the CNRP leaders at any time for further questioning.
“If there was not political pressure and no orders coming from above…[the case] would be finished because we did nothing wrong, we had an answer for everything, there was no problem,” Mr. Sokha said. “But if they want to do something, they will order the court [to summons us] again.”
Mr. Sokha said he was asked by prosecutors about his connection to demonstrations on Veng Sreng Street, which were violently suppressed by military police, who killed five workers and wounded more than 40 others on January 3, and his presence days earlier at a rally in Kompong Cham City that temporarily blocked a bridge.
“I answered that I did not know that…demonstrators were using violence on Veng Sreng Street, I only knew that authorities had used violence,” Mr. Sokha said.
Ly Sophanna, one of two deputy municipal court prosecutors who questioned Mr. Sokha and Mr. Rainsy, declined to comment Tuesday on their cases.
Rong Chhun, an opposition-aligned union leader who helped organize the nationwide strikes calling for a $160 wage in the garment sector, was also released after being questioned Tuesday morning at the Phnom Penh court over his alleged involvement with violent demonstrations.
Outside the courthouse, about 30 police were deployed to direct traffic, but gave up after Mr. Sokha arrived at 9 a.m. and the crowd of around 1,000 supporters pressed in around him, blocking traffic and taking over the street.
Also present outside the courthouse were the now familiar young men in civilian dress and motorcycle helmets—who usually carry steel bars and batons—who have used violence against several peaceful protests in the city since the disputed results of July’s national election. A group of about two-dozen of the heavies, all wearing matching black-and-silver motorcycle helmets, formed a line opposite the courthouse, but were withdrawn to nearby Olympic Stadium shortly before 9:30 a.m. to jeers from the growing crowd of opposition supporters. Just out of sight of the demonstrators, 13 military trucks, along with hundreds of military police, were stationed inside Olympic Stadium, across the street from the court.
Long Ry, head of security for the CNRP, said that the young men in motorcycle helmets were sent to the courthouse by municipal authorities to intimidate the crowd of opposition supporters. On previous occasion the young men have attacked monks, old women and journalists with batons, electric shock batons and marbles fired from slingshots.
Despite the obviously official nature of their deployment, and their violent attacks in coordination with police at Wat Phnom, Freedom Park and elsewhere in the city over the past several months, City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche claimed Tuesday that he had no idea why the dozens of helmeted youths were on duty at the courthouse.
Also appearing at the court Tuesday was an unexpected visitor hoping to see Mr. Sokha.
At about 9:30 a.m., Keo Sophannary, who claims to be the estranged former mistress of Mr. Sokha, appeared at the entrance gate to the courthouse, along with her mother, Sam Phalla, vocally demanding financial compensation from the CNRP vice president. Ms. Sophannary, however, was encircled by jeering CNRP supporters before she was ushered away by police who were standing nearby.
Ms. Phalla later claimed that she and her daughter were attacked by the crowd, although reporters present witnessed only insults being hurled at the pair.
(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)