Nine months after they were arrested on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s orders and jailed over the violent July 2014 Freedom Park protest that the government considers an “insurrection,” the trial of three opposition CNRP activists began on Thursday.
Yon Kimhour, 29, Roen Chetra, 33, and Yea Thong, 44, were jailed on Mr. Hun Sen’s orders on August 5, two weeks after the Phnom Penh Municipal Court found 11 opposition officials and activists guilty of leading and joining an insurrection over the protest.
One of those, CNRP information chief and U.S. citizen Meach Sovannara, is now suing the Cambodian government in the U.S. for wrongful imprisonment for his 20-year term, while seven CNRP lawmakers were also charged and briefly jailed for the protest.
At the municipal court on Thursday, two of the three activists were quizzed by Judge Heng Sokna and deputy prosecutor Keo Socheat, and admitted to involvement in the brawl that broke out between protesters and notoriously violent state security guards.
“I was just helping direct the traffic around the Naga Bridge,” Mr. Chetra told Judge Sokna, who responded by asking who the leaders of the protest were.
“I don’t know who the leaders were,” Mr. Chetra said.
The July 2014 protest was organized by CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who was in the midst of a monthslong campaign against the government’s closing down of Freedom Park—the officially designated zone for demonstrations in Phnom Penh.
Judge Sokna said he thought it was unlikely that Mr. Chetra had not recognized Ms. Sochua and the six other CNRP lawmakers who were arrested for being at the protest, given their profile.
“I believe all people all over Cambodia know the lawmakers from the CNRP,” Judge Sokna said of Mr. Chetra’s refusals to identify the lawmakers.
“They might know one or two, even if it’s not all, because they do their activities through television broadcasts,” the judge added.
Mr. Chetra repeated that he had not recognized the lawmakers who were present at the protest, leading the judge to change his line of questioning to the violence that broke out between protesters and guards.
The peaceful protest on July 15, 2014, turned violent when protesters suddenly started brawling with the helmeted Daun Penh district security guards, who had for months terrorized those who followed Ms. Sochua to the park in support of her campaign.
With the district guards hitting activists, lawmakers, journalists and even unlucky bystanders with batons if they did not leave the vicinity of the park, the July 15 brawl marked the first time that protesters struck back.
“During the violence that happened, what did you do,” Judge Sokna asked Mr. Chetra on Thursday.
“I committed kneeing,” he replied, explaining he had entered the brawl to pull out his friend and CNRP youth leader San Kimheng, who in July was sentenced to seven years in jail for the protest.
“I pulled San Kimheng out, and I was hit on the ear. I looked at that guy, and when I returned, I fought back by kneeing him twice,” Mr. Chetra said.
Another judge, Y Thavrak, asked Mr. Chetra why he had joined the protest in the first place.
“To direct the traffic, and importantly to make sure no violence happened when people came. If anything were to happen that could cause danger, I needed to advise them to avoid violence,” he said.
Mr. Chetra’s lawyer, Sam Sokong, then asked who had started the fight.
“It was the security guards in the blue and cream-colored uniforms who started the violence,” Mr. Chetra said.
Mr. Socheat, the deputy prosecutor, asked defendant Mr. Kimhour why he had joined the violence. Mr. Kimhour initially denied joining the fight, before admitting to taking a plastic flagpole to a security guard.
“First, the security guards tried to break up the demonstration, and when people did not break up, the security guards hit the people,” he said, adding that he joined out of a sense of justice.
“I saw the news around that time—the security guards were always hitting the people that came to join the protest, and I pitied those who were beaten up when they were trying to express themselves,” he said.
Mr. Thong was not questioned in court on Thursday, but the trial is set to continue on May 31.
Mr. Hun Sen has said the opposition lawmakers present at the protest and charged with leading an insurrection could still be arrested for their presence at the protest.
Keo Phirum, who is among those lawmakers, said the entire case was political, and that there was no question that security guards had started the fight.
“On that day, we were just gathering as usual, and security guards came in and fought, and younger people lost their patience—they fought back,” he said.
“It is not a black and white thing, wrong or right. It is a politically motivated issue,” he added. “It is nothing serious enough to have charges of insurrection.”