(Bangkok) – The trial of a young man and teenaged boy arrested during the Cambodian government’s suppression of a demonstration in Phnom Penh is deeply flawed and should not result in prison sentences, Human Rights Watch said today.
The two are being tried for aggravated intentional violence, damage, and insult of civil servants, and face up to 11 years in prison. Hearings in the case were held on April 25 and May 6, 2014, and the verdict is scheduled to be announced on May 30.
The arrests were in connection to the violent crackdown by police and gendarmes on a protest by garment workers on November 12, 2013. Vanny Vannan, age 18 or 19, is a deliveryman for building materials who appears to have been mistakenly identified. Meas Nun, a 14- or 15-year-old refuse collector, is a child living with intellectual disability who has not been given the protections due to children under international law. No charges are known to have been filed against any security force members in connection with their unjustified use of live fire during the demonstration that led to one fatality.
“The Cambodian authorities should be prosecuting the unnecessary use of lethal force by security forces instead of trying to convict a misidentified young man and a teenage boy with a disability,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Once again in Phnom Penh, the wrong people are in the dock, and the security forces who provoked the violence enjoy impunity for killing and wounding people with indiscriminate gunfire.”
Background to the Trial of Vanny Vannan and Meas Nun
On November 12, 2013, hundreds of workers from the SL garment factory on the outskirts of Phnom Penh attempted to march to the downtown residence of Prime Minister Hun Sen to demand better pay and working conditions.
The Phnom Penh Municipality Unified Command Committee, chaired by Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatevong, ordered city police and fire brigade contingents to block the workers’ path. The committee, which oversees all security forces in the capital, positioned these blocking forces in front of Steung Meanchey pagoda on Monireth Boulevard.
Numerous Cambodian and foreign journalists and human rights observers, as well as Cambodian government intelligence officers, monitored the incident. Human Rights Watch reviewed video taken by these sources and talked to witnesses to reconstruct what happened.
When the workers pushed up against the police line across Monireth Boulevard, fire trucks behind the police turned on their water cannons, forcing the workers to withdraw along the street. However, when the water ran out, the workers resumed their movement up the road, many of them throwing stones and forcing the police and fire brigade to withdraw. These security forces eventually regrouped and moved back down Monireth Boulevard. Police officers fired pistols into the air but also in the direction of the dispersing crowd. By this point, some residents, particularly young men pouring out of Steung Meanchey pagoda, had joined in the rock-throwing and eventually torched four police vehicles in front of the pagoda. One contingent of police chased youths into the pagoda, beating and kicking several. Municipal gendarmes later arrived to help the police secure the area. While so doing, the police and gendarme randomly beat many more young men in the area with truncheons.
Security force gunfire killed one person and wounded nine others. Beatings resulted in injuries to at least 26 other people. The use of force, particularly lethal force, by the security forces was excessive and in violation of international law. While police and fire brigade officers sustained injuries from rocks, there is no evidence that when they opened fire that they or anyone else was at imminent risk of death or serious injury.
While police mostly fired teargas and smoke grenades on Monireth Boulevard or into Steung Meanchey pagoda, video evidence and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch indicate that pistol fire directed by a few police officers down the street hit six people in it or alongside it, some up to 100 meters away, including a roadside food vendor, Eng Sokhom, who died from her wounds.
Three other people were wounded by shots fired by a police officer who had pursued youths into Steung Meanchey pagoda. He, along with four fellow policemen and two intelligence officers, became temporarily surrounded in the building by some of the youths they had been chasing and beating. Human rights workers then attempted to negotiate with a senior police commander outside the pagoda and the youths inside to secure safe exit from the building for the seven security personnel. However, after the youths began to give way, the senior police commander ordered the police on the outside to storm the pagoda, and one of the seven shot his way out of the pagoda grounds. One of the three shooting victims, Hoeun Chan, is now permanently paralyzed from the waist down.
Judicial Proceedings Against Vanny Vannan and Meas Nun
The trial against Vanny Vannan and Meas Nun was marred by procedural problems that bring into question its fairness. The judge was openly hostile to the two accused, their defense lawyers, and two exculpatory witnesses. He refused to allow a defense lawyer to introduce potentially exculpatory video evidence at the final hearing, declaring that to do so could threaten “public order in the courtroom.”
In addition to the criminal charges, 14 police and fire brigade officers have sued Vanny Vannan and Meas Nun for up to US$50,000 each in damages for injuries allegedly suffered during the unrest. In their testimony as civil parties in the case, the officers’ accounts of the events have been at great variance with video footage taken during the confrontation and other evidence.
The officers testified that there was no confrontation with the SL garment factory workers and omitted any mention of the use of force by security forces. Instead, they stated that while they were peacefully dealing with the workers, they were attacked in a highly organized, premeditated assault by a group of “anarchists” who launched a surprise rock-throwing attack on them from “their flanks,” that is, along the sides of Monireth Boulevard.
Police and fire brigade officers testified to seeing Vanny Vannan throwing rocks at them as part of the initial attack on their group. They also testified that he was throwing rocks at them from the perimeter of Steung Meanchey pagoda before they entered it, and that he was involved in torching police vehicles.
While Vannan says he was in the Steung Meanchey area during the incident, the video evidence contradicts claims that he was involved in the alleged criminal acts. The first security force allegation against him is contradicted by video evidence taken at the precise place and at the precise moment of the purported flank attack, which simply did not happen. The second two police claims are contradicted by video evidence that shows two different people dressed somewhat similarly to Vannan throwing rocks and setting fire to a vehicle. Comparison of these images to film taken of Vannan when he was taken into custody by Phnom Penh Municipal Police Commissioner Chuon Sovan show that he is neither of these other two people. Two police officers who are not party to the case and have viewed the video evidence told Human Rights Watch that they agree with this conclusion. It therefore appears that he has been misidentified as the perpetrator of acts committed by different individuals.
The case against Meas Nun raises due process concerns given that he is a child but he has not been treated as such under Cambodian law. A medical expert report by a nongovernmental doctor presented to the court by his defense lawyers describes him as having epilepsy and a “minor intellectual disability.” He is seen in a video attempting to salvage scrap metal from the burnt-out hulk of a motorbike, unsurprising since he makes his living as a collector of street refuse, but there is no video or other evidence that he set fire to any vehicle. He admitted to having thrown some rocks during the incident, while maintaining that he hit nothing with them, and said he knew throwing rocks was wrong.
The Rights of the Child and Persons with Disabilities
Cambodia has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The CRC calls upon countries to establish laws, procedures, authorities, and institutions specifically applicable to children alleged to having violated the penal law. Imprisonment of children should be used only as a matter of last resort, and for the shortest appropriate time, to achieve the goal of rehabilitating the child.
The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors compliance with the CRC, expressed concern in 2010 that there are no children’s courts or specialized judges or prosecutors in children’s rights in Cambodia. The Committee also noted that Cambodian children are often sentenced as adults by the courts, including in cases where they are charged alongside adults with aggravated crimes, and that alternatives in Cambodian law to detention of children are rarely used.
The Committee called on Cambodia to “promote alternative measures to detention, such as diversion, probation, counselling, community service or suspended sentences,” citing the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice adopted by the UN General Assembly.
Under the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the courts should adopt procedural and age-appropriate accommodations in all legal proceedings to enable people with disabilities to participate fully, whether as a witness or defendant. In the case of people with intellectual disabilities, especially children, the courts should employ special measures to enable and improve their participation in the judicial process. This also involves training of law enforcement and legal professionals in respectfully communicating and interacting with persons with disabilities.
Should the evidence warrant Meas Nun’s conviction, any sentence should take into account his age and disability, among other factors, and result in the application of a UN-recommended alternative to a custodial sentence.
“The Steung Meanchey case is another test of whether Cambodia’s courts are places of justice,” Adams said. “Cambodia’s donors should use their enormous leverage effectively to insist that the government not continue to use the judiciary to commit injustices and reinforce the impunity of abusive security forces.”