Taking the stand for the first time since his arrest at a garment worker protest that turned violent in early January, union leader Vorn Pao told the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday that he went to the protest only to make peace and was beaten bloody by soldiers for his efforts.
Mr. Pao, president of the Informal Democracy of Economy Association, was one of 23 men arrested on January 2 and 3 at a pair of protests for higher garment sector wages and charged with causing or inciting violence and property damage. Military police shot and killed at least five people at the demonstration on January 3, where protesters were armed with stones, slingshots and Molotov cocktails.
At Tuesday’s hearings, the third in these trials, Mr. Pao said he was still suffering from the beating he received at the hands of soldiers—including members of the elite Brigade 911—who had been called in to suppress a protest outside the Yakjin garment factory on January 2.
“I was beaten on the head three or four times, and there was blood. I know the person who beat me. He was from Unit 911,” he said.
Mr. Pao denied doing anything to incite the violence that erupted between the soldiers and protesters.
“I just asked them to not use violence and not beat Khmer,” he said. “I prayed to RCAF [Royal Cambodian Armed Forces] to not use violence when they pointed their weapons at the workers and at me.”
Mr. Pao was the last man to be questioned Tuesday. Earlier, another of the 10 men arrested outside Yakjin on January 2, Sokhun Sambathpiseth, also denied attacking the soldiers and accused the soldiers of attacking him unprovoked.
“Before they arrested me, they beat me as if I were a thief,” he said. “Vorn Pao and I were arrested together, and I thought I would die and become food for the crocodiles.”
Chan Puthisak, another of the 10 arrested men, said he was also attacked without cause. He insisted that the soldiers began throwing bottles at the protesters first, and corroborated Mr. Pao’s claim that the union leader was beseeching nonviolence.
“I heard Mr. Pao tell the soldiers and the workers to not use violence, but they did not listen to him,” Mr. Puthisak said. “The soldiers of Unit 911 threw the bottles at the workers first, then the workers threw them back at the soldiers.”
Meanwhile, in another room of the courthouse, hearings had resumed in the case of the 13 men arrested at the January 3 protest on Veng Sreng Street that ended with the fatal shooting of at least five garment workers.
Another worker injured in the clash died on Saturday.
With the defendants questioned over two previous days, the court Tuesday heard from 18 police and military police officers who all claimed that they were attacked first and injured by rampaging “anarchists” throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails.
“Our superiors asked us to negotiate with them, but they did not listen to us,” said Ouk Sambath, deputy police chief of Prampi Makara district. “Actually, they insulted us, saying, ‘You police are yuon [an at times derogatory term for Vietnamese], you are dogs.’”
After that, he said, “the group of anarchists attacked us with pieces of stone, burning bottles of gasoline, pieces of wood and tables…. I was hit in the nose and face with stones, then I was knocked unconscious. When I woke up I was in Preah Kossamak Hospital.”
Like every other officer Tuesday, Phnom Penh deputy military police commander Kong Kiri told the court much the same story. When Ham Sunrith, a lawyer for the defendants, asked how it happened that protesters were shot, Mr. Kiri said he had no idea.
“We had no guns, only riot uniforms, so I don’t know who shot at them,” he said.
When Mr. Sunrith presented a photo of a military police officer firing a rifle, Mr. Kiri grew angry and shouted back at the lawyer, accusing him of disrespect.
“I don’t know who he is because there were a lot of forces who came from different units,” Mr. Kiri said.
When the lawyer persisted, asking why the officers had beaten his clients, Judge Leang Samnath put a quick stop to the line of questioning, claiming it was not relevant.
Outside the courthouse during the hearings, district security guards and activist monks briefly scuffled at a barricade police had set up to keep hundreds of protesters at bay.
Pa Sopheap, a Prampi Makara district security guard, said four of his colleagues were injured when they tried to disperse the crowd.
“One man was hit with a rock near his eyebrow by a monk and he needed four stitches, and another was injured in the right arm,” he said.
Another security guard, who refused to give his name, said they would be tougher with the protesters next time.
“It is a lesson for us, and next time if they use force we will take revenge,” he said. “We have photos of the monk who threw the rock at us and we have filed a complaint with the commune police.”
Commune police officials confirmed receipt of the complaint, which accused five unnamed monks for the alleged attack.
But Buntenh, president of the Independent Monk Network for Social Justice, who had led several fellow monks to the protest, said he welcomed the complaint and insisted that his members were acting in self-defense.
“[The security guards] are the ones who chased and hit our monks,” he said. “We saw them hitting monks and the monks could not stand it so they had to fight back.”
The trials resume today.
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)