(New York) – Cambodian authorities should immediately exonerate and unconditionally release 11 opposition activists convicted after an unfair trial, Human Rights Watch said today. The three judges at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court took just 15 minutes after the close of proceedings on July 21, 2015, to sentence the members of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) to 7-20 years in prison on trumped-up charges of “insurrection.”
“This travesty of a trial seems drawn from a 1980s playbook when Cambodian leader Hun Sen didn’t even pretend to respect basic rights,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Cambodia’s donors should join together to publicly condemn this verdict and demand the release of the ‘Phnom Penh 11.’”
The 11 convicted are Meach Sovannara, Oeu Narit, Khin Roeun, Neang Sokhon, San Kimheng, Sum Puthy, Ke Khim, Tep Narin, An Patham, San Seihak, and Uk Pech Samnang. All had been free on bail but were arrested in court upon the announcement of the verdict. They include a number of key CNRP activists, several of whom organized nonviolent election campaign gatherings and other peaceful demonstrations and protests in 2013. CNRP organizers have consistently acted to prevent violent behavior by protesters, most recently on July 19 during a CNRP-sponsored protest against alleged Vietnamese encroachment into Cambodian territory.
Human Rights Watch’s investigations found no basis to the accusations by Cambodian authorities that the 11 defendants instigated or participated in a violent uprising to forcibly expel government security forces from Phnom Penh’s Democracy Plaza (also known as Freedom Park) on July 15, 2014. The demonstration was one in a series by the CNRP to protest the government-manipulated July 2013 elections. The peaceful protest deteriorated into a melee when para-police attempted to use force to move the protesters away and some responded with violence. Human Rights Watch found that CNRP activists, including several of the 11, tried to stop the violence. There were reported injuries to 39 para-police and 6 protesters, 3 of whom were hurt when they attempted to protect security forces from attack by others.
The indictment contained no evidence to support the government’s claim that CNRP had planned an “insurrection,” or that any of the 11 had themselves committed acts of violence. A Cambodian judicial officer familiar with the charges described them to Human Rights Watch as “ridiculous.” During the hearings, which began on December 25, 2014, another told Human Rights Watch that the para-police injured during the melee had “acted wrongly,” and that the right thing for them to do was to withdraw their complaints against the 11. No evidence was presented at trial that any of the convicted activists had committed violence.
On July 20 the trial judges suddenly announced they were going to expedite the proceedings and scheduled hearings for the next day, even though defense lawyers had previous commitments making it impossible for them to attend. On July 21, with only one of several defense lawyers present, leaving many of the accused without legal representation, the trial judges allowed accusatory witness statements to be read into evidence without calling the persons who had made them. They then directed that closing arguments be made immediately, overruling requests from the accused for a delay so all their lawyers would have time to prepare such statements. The judges then retired to consider the case, as security forces massed in and around the courthouse. After 15 minutes, the judges returned to the courtroom and announced the guilty verdicts and sentences. The 11 were immediately taken under heavy guard to Prey Sar prison, just outside Phnom Penh.
“As in the current Khmer Rouge trials, Cambodian judges are doing the political bidding of the Hun Sen government,” Adams said. “Two decades of international aid and training for the courts, and repeated promises of reform from the government, have resulted in no changes in how the judiciary acts in political cases.”
During the trial, the prosecution appeared to be laying the groundwork for resurrecting charges of insurrection against seven CNRP members of the National Assembly. The prosecution portrayed these members of parliament as the ringleaders of the purported July 15, 2014 Democracy Plaza uprising, even though no evidence was presented. The seven had been arrested and released after spending time in jail in 2014, although the government maintains that their release was provisional and that they do not enjoy parliamentary immunity.
The convictions and long sentences imposed on the Phnom Penh 11 appear to be a challenge to the “culture of dialogue” touted by Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy.
“These verdicts make clear that Hun Sen’s promises of replacing confrontation with dialogue are empty and that he will do whatever he thinks he can get away with to remain in power,” Adams said. “The Phnom Penh 11 case and a draconian new law on organizations show a renewed Hun Sen offensive against opposition to his repressive rule. Donors should end their silence and stop making empty statements about a ‘democracy’ that does not exist in Cambodia.”