Supporters of Kem Sokha, former opposition leader and ex-president of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), hold up a poster near the Appeal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on March 27, 2018. 

© 2018 Reuters / Samrang Pring
(New York) – Cambodian authorities should quash the politically motivated “insurrection” convictions against 11 members, supporters, and activists of Cambodia’s now dissolved main opposition party, Human Rights Watch said today. Cambodia’s Court of Appeal is scheduled to announce its decision on an appeal by the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) members, who had received sentences of from 7 to 20 years, on May 10, 2018.

“The prosecution of 11 CNRP members was one of the first of many bogus cases brought against the opposition after the party nearly won the disputed 2013 elections,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party apparently decided to lock up political opponents to stave off defeat at the ballot box.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party apparently decided to lock up political opponents to stave off defeat at the ballot box.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

The 11 CNRP members have been incarcerated since 2014 at Phnom Penh’s Correctional Center 1 for their alleged role in a July 15, 2014 demonstration. The demonstration called for the reopening of Phnom Penh’s Democracy Plaza, known as Freedom Park, one in a series held by the CNRP to protest government manipulation of the July 2013 elections and restrictions on peaceful assembly.

The demonstration deteriorated into a melee when para-police forcibly attempted to move the protesters, and some protesters responded with violence. CNRP activists, including several of the 11, tried to stop the violence, including three who tried to protect security force members from attack. Injuries were reported by 41 security guards and six protesters.

The 11 were later arrested as part of the government’s crackdown on the political opposition and social activists. Also arrested were five CNRP members of parliament and 19 activists and human rights defenders who were soon released as part of a political deal between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the CNRP. However, the government did not drop the charges of insurrection and incitement against those released, subjecting them to arrest at any time.

On July 21, 2015, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted Meach Sovannara, Oeur Narith, and Khim Chamreun of participating in and leading an insurrectionary movement (articles 456, 457, and 459 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code) and sentenced them to 20 years in prison. Ouk Pich Samnang, Sum Puthy, Neang Sokhun, San Seihak, San Kimheng, Tep Narin, An Butham, and Ke Khim were convicted of participating in an insurrectionary movement (articles 456 and 457) and sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment.

Insurrection is broadly defined under Cambodian criminal law article 456 as “collective violence liable to endanger the institutions of the Kingdom of Cambodia or violate the integrity of the national territory.” Article 457 requires that the accused carry out at least one of seven activities as part of an insurrectionary movement: constructing barricades or fortifications to obstruct public forces; occupying a building or installation by force or deceit; destroying a building or installation; providing transport or logistics to “insurgents”; directly inciting insurgents to gather; personally carrying weapons, explosives or ammunition; or usurping a lawful authority.

During the trial, the prosecution did not identify any of the 11 defendants as having committed any acts of violence during the protest. When judges unexpectedly called for closing arguments with only one defense attorney present in the courtroom, the defendants requested a delay until their lawyers could attend. The judges denied the request and the judges deliberated for just 15 minutes before returning the verdicts and sentences.

The Court of Appeal heard the case from April 21 to 23, 2018. Government security guards admitted during the appeal hearings that they had not written the complaint against the accused themselves but had merely fingerprinted it while recovering in the hospital. Short clips of the protest played by the prosecution were played on screens too small to be seen by the audience. These videos showed parts of the protests where protesters beat security guards but also some of the defendants protecting security guards from angry protesters. A video clip also showed Member of Parliament Mu Sochua calling upon protesters to demonstrate non-violently. The prosecutor provided no evidence of the appellants participating in any alleged insurrection.

“Although the government has banned the political opposition from the July elections, Cambodian authorities have persisted with political trials of people who stood up to Hun Sen and the ruling party,” Adams said. “This case is particularly twisted because the people charged not only didn’t commit violence, but some actively tried to prevent it. The court’s ruling, in this case, sends a broader message to the international community that the future of peaceful public dissent in Cambodia is at stake.”