A defrocked teenage monk told the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday that he was merely defending himself when he stabbed and killed a deputy abbot at Samakki Raingsey pagoda in January.
Chan Sopheak, 18, stands charged with intentional violence with aggravating circumstances for killing Thach Khan, 37, the second deputy chief monk at the pagoda, which is home to one of the country’s most politically active groups of monks.
The charge carries a prison sentence of between seven and 15 years.
“The court has enough evidence,” Presiding Judge Top Chhun Heng said at the close of hearings in the case Thursday. “The authorities also confiscated a knife and robes belonging to the suspect after he committed the crime.”
Police said Mr. Sopheak, who is ethnic Khmer Krom and also goes by the name Ly Toeng, stabbed Thach Khan after the deputy abbot punched him in the jaw at Wat Samakki Raingsey.
Shortly after the stabbing, Mr. Sopheak was arrested while hiding at a home near the pagoda and quickly admitted to the violence, which he told police was a spontaneous reaction to the senior monk’s efforts to discipline him—a story he maintained in court Thursday.
“At about 7 a.m., [Thach Khan] came to my room and beat me around the temple,” Mr. Sopheak said.
“I asked him, ‘Why are you beating me?’ but he just pushed me and punched me in the face,” he continued. “I tried to move away from him but he followed me, so I took a knife from the table nearby to fight back.”
Samakki Raingsey has served as a home to dissident monks and a temporary shelter to laypeople who come to the city with grievances to air with the prime minister or parliament. It is predominantly populated by Khmer Krom monks, many of whom say they have fled religious persecution in Vietnam.
Various protest movements—against land grabbing, Vietnamese influence in Cambodia and the treatment of Khmer Krom in Vietnam—have grown inside the pagoda, and Mr. Sopheak told the court Thursday that Thach Khan had attempted to force him to join demonstrations.
“He was angry at me because I did not join the demonstrations with the other monks,” he said of the fight that led to the stabbing.
However, Thach Sokun, a monk at Samakki Raingsey and a cousin of the deceased, disputed those claims.
“The testimony from Chan Sopheak is not true. The venerable Thach Khan just reprimanded the young monk because he had behaved poorly,” he said. “He never forced any monk to join demonstrations. It’s voluntary.”
Thach Sokun said his cousin had called the young monk to be disciplined after he tore down a poster that stated a certain layperson was banned for using the pagoda’s name to enrich himself, an account corroborated by an abbot at Samakki Raingsey.
In the days after the killing, acting chief monk Thach Ha Sam Ang said the act was premeditated and suggested outside interference. “It could be that someone outside the pagoda incited him to make trouble in the pagoda, because if the pagoda has an incident, [the authorities] can shut down the pagoda,” he said at the time.
Contacted Thursday, Nay Vanda, a senior monitor for rights group Adhoc, said he had investigated the case and was not satisfied that Mr. Sopheak was acting on instinct when he killed Thach Khan.
“We suspect that the case involves incitement,” Mr. Vanda said.
“Many people who lose in land conflicts come to the pagoda. On the other side of those conflicts are very rich people who may have become very unhappy with the pagoda,” he added. “That is why we call for a full and independent investigation.”
Judge Chhun Heng said a verdict would be handed down on June 23.
(Additional reporting by Matt Blomberg)