Eleven activists convicted in November of blocking traffic and obstructing the work of public officials all professed their innocence Thursday at a high-profile Appeal Court hearing attended by the U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, and members of several foreign delegations.
Seven of the activists, including well-known anti-eviction protester Tep Vanny, were arrested during a demonstration in front of Phnom Penh City Hall in November after placing a bed frame in the middle of Monivong Boulevard. The other four, including former monk Soeung Hai, were arrested the next day during a protest outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court against the arrest of the original seven.
After summary trials widely seen as politically motivated, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted all 11—the seven of blocking traffic, the other four of obstructing officials—and sentenced them to a year in prison.
At Thursday’s appeal hearing, Ms. Vanny denied that their bed stunt had troubled traffic.
“The reason we took the bed to City Hall was because we wanted to show that we didn’t have a place to sleep because our houses were inundated” with floodwater, she said.
Residents of the city’s Boeng Kak neighborhood accuse CPP Senator Lao Meng Khin’s private firm, Shukaku, of illegally evicting thousands of families from the community and blame its filling-in of a local lake for the regular flooding of their homes during the rainy season.
“About 10 people stood in the middle of the road, but we did not cause a traffic jam,” Ms. Vanny said.
Sam Sokhuntea, one of the defendants’ lawyers, argued that if authorities believed her clients were guilty, they should also arrest everyone who parks on the street in front of restaurants.
Prosecutor Nget Sarath responded by reading out testimony from a police officer who said the protesters ignored orders to clear the road.
“There is enough evidence to inculpate the seven accused people, so please uphold the verdict of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court,” he said.
At the hearing for the rest of the defendants, which followed immediately afterward, all four denied claims that they attacked police in front of the municipal court. Soeung Hai said he was heading back to his pagoda from a trip to the bank when he saw the scuffle and stopped, hoping to take photographs in order to publicize what was happening.
“I did not beat or insult the authorities,” he said. “When I arrived there, I wanted to see what was happening. I was arrested by a group of security guards and hit on the mouth…. I deny the charge; please acquit me.”
During the two hearings, lawyers for the defendants asked to show video footage of both protests. But the judges denied the requests, saying the footage was in the case file and they had already seen it.
Presiding Judge Nguon Im said the court would announce its decision on Monday.
Mr. Subedi, who is in Cambodia on his final mission as the U.N.’s human rights envoy to the country, attended part of the hearings but declined to speak to reporters about the cases. Rights group Licadho said representatives from the Australian, British, European Union, German, Swiss and U.S. embassies also showed up.
During the hearing, some 400 supporters of the defendants, including relatives and monks, demonstrated outside the Appeal Court demanding their release.
On Wednesday, Amnesty International issued a statement urging the Appeal Court to drop the charges against the 11 defendants.
“These activists are victims of the Cambodian authorities’ relentless crackdown on peaceful protests—they should never have been prosecuted in the first place, let alone jailed,” Janice Beanland, Amnesty International’s campaigner on Cambodia, says in the statement.
“The cynical use of a range of laws and the courts to intimidate and punish people for exercising their right to freedom of peaceful assembly must end.”
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)