(New York) – Cambodian authorities should drop politically motivated “insurrection” charges against 11 opposition party activists, Human Rights Watch said today.

On December 25, 2014, the Phnom Penh municipal court will hold a trial of members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) for their alleged role in a July 15 demonstration.

The “insurrection” prosecutions are part of the government’s ongoing use of arbitrary arrests, intimidation, and violence to pressure the country’s political opposition into dropping demands for electoral and other reforms.

“The government’s prosecution of the 11 activists is a breathtakingly cynical act of political vindictiveness against the already besieged Cambodian opposition,” said Phelim Kine, deputy Asia director. “Cambodia’s foreign donors should press the government to immediately drop the spurious charges against the activists.”

The charges stem from violence during a demonstration on July 15 organized by senior CNRP officials, including several then-members elect of the Cambodian National Assembly, at Phnom Penh’s Democracy Plaza (also known as Freedom Park). That violence included brutal beatings by some protesters of para-police personnel at the scene as well as the use of excessive force by state security forces against peaceful protesters. The government has blamed that violence on the CNRP as evidence of an “insurrection” plot despite the absence of any evidence to support that allegation.

The authorities are prosecuting the 11 activists in a single consolidated case under the Cambodian Penal Code for leading or participating in an “insurrection,” which carries prison sentences of 20 to 30 years or 7 to 15 years, respectively. All are party officials or grassroots activists, several with links to trade unionists and land rights campaigners.

The 11 are: Meach Sovannara, Oeun Narit, Khin Chamreun, San Kimheng, Neang Sokhun, Sum Puthy, Ouk Pichsamnang, Tep Narin, An Bak Tham, San Seihak, and Ke Khim. Police arrested or summonsed them between July 16 and November 13. Five of the accused remain in pretrial detention.

The July 15 demonstration attracted several hundred protesters, who demanded the government lift its then-month-long arbitrary closure of Democracy Plaza, an area officially designated as a public space for the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. The government had closed the area to the public as part of a wider crackdown on CNRP protests against the official results of a July 2013 national election, which was neither free nor fair, and which returned Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to power. The closure was also linked to government efforts to compel the CNRP to end a boycott of the National Assembly. The government enforced the closure by deploying openly pro-CPP gendarmes, police, para-police “public order,” and “people’s defense” forces to occupy the plaza and prevent public access.

The Cambodian government has attempted to blame the July 15 violence entirely on the CNRP. However, a Human Rights Watch review of video evidence from the scene indicates that most if not all violence followed attempts by security contingents to forcibly break up the protests. The video suggests that protesters physically attacked security forces as a spontaneous reaction to security forces’ attacks and contrary to pleas for non-violence from CNRP leaders on the scene. The authorities have not prosecuted any security force personnel implicated in violence and injuries inflicted on protesters.

Shortly after the July 15 clash, a senior Cambodian security force officer told Human Rights Watch that the government had no evidence that the CNRP planned or initiated violence. Instead, according to this source, security forces were under orders to provoke a confrontation to create a pretext to arrest senior CNRP figures. However, the government had not anticipated that demonstrators would resist security forces.

On July 15 police arrested CNRP members-elect of the National Assembly Mu Sochua, Keo Phirum, Men Sothavarin, Ho Vann, Riel Khemarin, Long Ry, and Nuth Rumduol and charged them with insurrection and other crimes. However, all seven were subsequently released and now have parliamentary immunity from prosecution as part of a deal between the CNRP and Hun Sen to end the opposition’s National Assembly boycott. Democracy Plaza reopened to the public on August 6, but the government has maintained severe restrictions on the right to peaceful assembly.

Cambodia’s Penal Code defines “insurrection” as a form of “collective violence that could lead to endangering institutions of the Kingdom” or “lead to an adverse effect on the integrity of the nation’s territory.” It specifies that insurrectionary acts include constructing road barriers, defensive fortifications, or other works intended to hinder the activities of public forces; the occupation of buildings by force or subterfuge or the destruction of buildings; the possession of weapons, explosives, or munitions; and the provisioning or incitement of insurrectionists. None of the CNRP activists going on trial on December 25 did anything even approximating such acts.

“Hun Sen may be hoping that holding this trial on Christmas Day will blunt international criticism of what is a politicized witch-hunt with a judicial veneer,” Kine said. “Cambodia’s foreign donors should tell the government that its manipulation of the security forces and the judiciary to undermine the opposition is as unacceptable as it is transparent.”