Union Leader Rejects Video, Photo Evidence

During his second day under questioning on charges of inciting violence and property damage at a January 2 protest, union leader Vorn Pao was presented with photographs showing his tuk-tuk packed with rocks, and a video of him calling on low-ranking police to turn their guns on their bosses if asked to shoot protesters.

Mr. Pao, president of the Informal Democracy of Economic Association, suggested that soldiers put the rocks in his tuk-tuk, and rejected the use of the video, which was from a separate protest days earlier.

Monks lead a march around central Phnom Penh on Wednesday to protest the ongoing trial of 23 men arrested at a pair of garment worker demonstrations in early January. (Siv Channa)
Monks lead a march around central Phnom Penh on Wednesday to protest the ongoing trial of 23 men arrested at a pair of garment worker demonstrations in early January. (Siv Channa)

The union leader is one of 23 men on trial for their roles in a pair of protests for higher garment sector wages in early January that turned violent. The protests came to a bloody end on January 3 after military police shot dead at least five garment workers.

Mr. Pao, who along with nine others was beaten by soldiers before his arrest outside the Yakjin factory on January 2, told the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Tuesday that he went to the protest only to implore both the soldiers and workers to refrain from violence.

As his questioning resumed, the prosecution presented photos of Mr. Pao’s tuk-tuk at the protest: one of the vehicle festooned with megaphones and Buddhist flags, and another of it filled with rocks. Mr. Pao said it was his tuk-tuk in each photo, but denied that he had at any point packed it with rocks.

“I don’t know who put the rocks in the tuk-tuk; I think the soldiers put them there, not me,” he said.

Judge Keo Mony quickly rebuked him for making accusations.

“You must not accuse the security forces, and you must make that claim in another case,” he said.

During the hearing, the prosecution also presented a video clip and several photos of Mr. Pao at a tense but peaceful garment worker rally in front of the Council of Ministers on December 30.

In the clip, Mr. Pao could be seen and heard advising any police ordered by their superiors to point their guns at garment workers to point the weapons at their superiors instead. But Mr. Pao refused to confirm that the audio in the clip was accurate and challenged the court’s use of a video from December 30, when he was on trial for a protest on January 2.

“I don’t know why the judge takes another case and links it with Yakjin. What is the real intention of this hearing?” he said. “I will respond to what happened at Yakjin, no other case.”

Mr. Pao had requested two 15-minute breaks during the hearing, claiming he was still suffering from the beating he received during his arrest, and finally asked the court to adjourn at 2:45 p.m. Judge Mony granted the request.

In another room at the courthouse, hearings also resumed for the 13 men arrested on January 3 at a protest on Veng Sreng Street, where military police shot dead five garment workers after being pelted with rocks, metal bolts and crude Molotov cocktails.

Witnesses for the defense all recounted stories of military police bursting into rooms and arresting people without cause or apprehending innocent people on the street.

Poy Soy said neither he nor defendant Choeun Yong had ventured outside of their dormitory when the clash erupted nearby.

“On January 3, Choeun Yong did not go out of his rental room, but the military police came and kicked the door of the room and pushed the door open and arrested Choeun Yong,” Mr. Soy said. “As they arrested Choeun Yong, they kicked and hit him with batons and the military police dragged him out of the room.”

Prosecutors showed the court a nearly 20-minute video clip, shot by security forces, showing protesters throwing rocks and vandalizing property. None of the 13 suspects appeared in the video, however, a fact included in a January 14 statement from the Ministry of Interior read out in court.

A military police official and a lawyer for the prosecution nonetheless insisted that the 13 were engaged in the day’s violence. But Ham Sunrith, a lawyer for five of the suspects, pointed out that they had presented no evidence supporting their claim.

“There is no evidence that shows that my clients committed the crimes because no witness saw the activity of my clients as they are charged,” he said. “Please acquit them and release them.”

After the hearings, relatives of the accused and rights workers monitoring the trials criticized the court for the way it was conducting the proceedings.

“The court does not question the accused fairly,” said Houn Thy, the wife of defendant Houn Da, after watching the hearing. “They do not let the accused defend themselves, but they let the people who accuse them more time to answer.”

Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for rights group Licadho, also accused the court of bias in Mr. Pao’s case.

“The court should not use a video from in front of the Council of Ministers on [December] 30th to link him with the Yakjin case because it’s a different case,” he said.

“Sometimes the court seems to be playing the role of the prosecution with its questions. The court should only weight the proof for or against the accused.”

Hearings in both trials resume Thursday.

(Additional reporting by Mech Dara)

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