An Appeal Court hearing into an alleged “insurrection” carried out by 11 former Cambodia National Rescue Party activists in 2014 resumed on Tuesday, with the proceedings focusing on videos from the Freedom Park protest.
The insurrection charges stem from an opposition CNRP demonstration in July of 2014 to demand the government remove barricades and armed forces stationed at Freedom Park, the site of the opposition’s 2013 post-election protests. The day’s protest turned violent when security guards moved to crack down on protesters, who for a year had seen their peaceful gatherings at the park violently broken up by the notorious Daun Penh district security guard force. This time, protesters retaliated in a brief melee, beating a number of guards before dispersing.
Of the 11 activists arrested, three were handed 20 years by the Phnom Penh court in 2015 for leading the purported “insurrection” – defined in the law as “collective violence liable to endanger the institutions of the Kingdom of Cambodia or violate the integrity of the national territory”. The remaining eight activists were sentenced to seven years for their participation.
During yesterday’s afternoon session, the court directed the clerk to play video clips of the 2014 protest, immediately drawing objections from the defence. Of the three television screens in the court room, officials played the clips on only one 32-inch screen, making it hard for the defence lawyers – and most observers and journalists – to view the videos.
“We cannot see the videos, and this is an important stage of the trial,” said defence lawyer Choung Choungy.
Defendant and CNRP activist Ouk Pich Samnang, meanwhile, rose to ask that a video of the protest be played in its entirety, rather than short clips.
Presiding Judge Plan Samnang said the Appeal Court was limited in resources and said attendees would have to make do with the single TV screen.
“The Appeal Court only has this much ability. There is a difference between [resources] available to rich and poor countries,” he said, going so far as to solicit monetary donations for the court from those in the courtroom.
The court clerk proceeded to play around 30 video clips varying in length from a few seconds to around five minutes. The shorter videos showed protesters and security guards scuffling but quickly cut off before showing who initiated the violence on the day.
Longer compilation videos, with frequent repetitions, seemed to show parts of the protests where security guards were roughed up or beaten by the protesters. Another clip showed protesters using blue plastic pipes they had used as flagpoles aggressively swiping at the security guards.
It also shows a handful of seriously injured guards being taken away by officials, in one instance protected from the angry crowds by defendant An Butham and human rights observers.
Another video showed the announcement of the protests by former CNRP lawmakers Real Camerin and Mu Sochua, both of whom called for a nonviolent demonstration.
One video, submitted by the defence, showed security guards removing batons from bags as they head towards the protesters. Another showed guards violently beating people with batons as soon as the protesters’ banner was removed from the barricade.
“They accuse us of having sticks. If you look at the real video, you see we have no sticks,” said another defendant Oeur Narith, turning to reporters.
Earlier in the day, two guards admitted before the court that they had not written the complaint against the accused themselves and had been asked to thumbprint it while recovering in hospital. Statements from 32 other guards, almost identical in language, were also read out in court.
At the insistence of the civil party lawyers representing the guards, statements were read out from seven CNRP lawmakers present at the protest.
Charges were initially filed against the seven – Mu Sochua, Long Ry, Men Sovanarin, Nuth Rumdol, Keo Phirum, Ho Vann and Real Camerin – and they were also jailed on insurrection and incitement charges.
The entire case was widely seen as politically motivated, given that it came amid tense negotiations between the opposition CNRP and ruling Cambodian People’s Party over the opposition’s boycott of parliament. As the political winds changed and the CNRP and CPP moved towards a deal, the lawmakers were released on bail weeks after their arrest.
However, as relations again soured over the following months, 14 CNRP activists were arrested for their alleged roles in the “insurrection” – which according to timestamps on the videos played Tuesday, lasted less than half an hour. The three others were tried separately, each getting seven-year prison sentences.
Judge Samnang ended Tuesday’s hearing and said the parties would be allowed to debate all the evidence produced so far, and make closing remarks, on Wednesday.