(New York) – The Cambodian authorities should drop charges and release a teenage boy and five young men against whom the prosecution presented no credible evidence of criminal activity at their hearing on February 17, 2014 at a Phnom Penh court. A verdict is scheduled for February 21.
Police arrested the six during post-election civil unrest on the outskirts of Phnom Penh on the night of September 15, 2013, following peaceful demonstrations earlier that day in another part of the capital against the officially announced elections results. Their indictment stated only that they were at or near the general area where alleged criminal acts of violence occurred. More than 30 police officers, including two of the commanders at the scene, Sok Khemarin and Kuch Sopheap, testified at the February 17 hearing but failed to individually identify any of the six as perpetrators of specific criminal acts.
“The court proceedings and eyewitness accounts make it clear that the police arbitrarily seized a few people from a crowd,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Instead of prosecuting the six to justify the security forces’ use of excessive force against protesters, the authorities should free them and bring charges against security personnel responsible for a death and many injuries.”
The six defendants – Lanh Samoeun, Va Noeun, Nguyen Thi Duc, Sok Nisay, Tang Chongseang and Ek Chumnou, who is 17 years old – are charged with acts of intentional violence resulting in injuries to others and damage to property. They were arrested near the Kbal Thnal and Monivong bridges on the southern outskirts of Phnom Penh.
On September 15, the government of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) deployed large numbers of police, gendarmes, and other security forces to prevent a gathering of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The rally still took place, but the security forces blocked CNRP supporters and tens of thousands of other Phnom Penh residents from going home afterwards. Reinforcements armed with assault rifles and automatic pistols deployed in the neighborhoodof the Kbal Thnal and Monivong bridges.
People emerging from stalled vehicles attempted to remove barriers or urged security forces to allow them to leave. Some attempted to storm security force positions on the two bridges, injuring some security force personnel in isolated melees. Various security force units and personnel opened fire with tear gas and eventually live rounds.
Crowd control efforts after the September 15 rally appeared to lack command and control, Human Rights Watch said. Security forces used apparent excessive force, including by shooting indiscriminately into crowds. One bystander was killed by a round later identified as coming from a type of pistol carried by police as standard issue. Among those wounded was a local CPP official. Police even teargassed a contingent of gendarmes standing guard underneath a bridge upon which the police were operating. Security forces also briefly detained plainclothes officers from units other than their own, only releasing them when they produced official documents identifying them as intelligence operatives.
Human Rights Watch observed the police carrying out random arrests of young men whom they chased and beat underneath Kbal Thnal bridge, accusing them of being opposition party “trouble-makers.” Of those arrested, only the six are now facing charges.
The police claim that one of the six, Nguyen Thi Duc, an ethnic Vietnamese, has “confessed” to crimes. However, he has retracted this statement, alleging the police tortured him with electroshock batons to force him to sign a statement in Khmer that he did not fully understand. The statement implausibly claimed he had been hired by the opposition CNRP, which has campaigned against Vietnamese migration into Cambodia, to violently attack the government. While the five others were granted temporary release from detention prior to trial, Nguyen Thi Duc has been kept in detention.
Of the six, only one had attended the opposition rally. Others were simply residents who were in the area because they were trying to go home or assist relatives trapped in the traffic jams.
“Anything other the dropping of charges in this case will be an injustice to the accused and contribute to further entrenching impunity for the CPP-controlled security forces,” Adams said. “Donors should take these cases up just as they would if opposition politicians had been arrested on phony charges, or these six may become more forgotten victims of Hun Sen’s rule.”