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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Six CNRP members in jail

Kem Sokha (centre) talks to the media at the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh
Kem Sokha (centre) talks to the media at the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh yesterday as a projection shows members of the party in handcuffs behind him. Vireak Mai

Six CNRP members in jail

Ten opposition members, including seven elected lawmakers, were charged yesterday by Phnom Penh Municipal Court with crimes ranging from holding an illegal demonstration to insurrection over their alleged roles in a violent protest at Freedom Park on Tuesday.

Shortly after 5pm yesterday, Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers-elect Mu Sochua, Keo Phirom, Men Sothavarin, Ho Vann and Real Camerin, and Oeun Narith, a CNRP youth leader and assistant to Sochua, were sent to pre-trial detention in Phnom Penh’s notorious Prey Sar prison.

Photos uploaded to Facebook last night showed Vann changing into prison-issue clothing.

“I decided to detain six of them and sent them to Prey Sar Prison temporarily,” said investigating judge Keo Mony, citing charges including “holding a demonstration illegally, incitement to commit a crime against public civil servants and initiating ideas to commit a violent act with aggravating circumstances”.

CNRP chief whip Son Chhay told the Post that two other lawmakers-elect, Long Ry and Nuth Romduol, were also charged with the same crimes, but as of 8pm last night, they had not been arrested.

Two other CNRP activists have also been charged but remain at large, according to Sam Sokong, a defence lawyer for Camerin and Narith.

If found guilty, the accused CNRP members could face up to 30 years in prison.

And Mony said his investigation was not over. “[It is] not completely done yet, I will continue investigating them .”

Brigadier General Chhuon Narin, deputy chief of Phnom Penh Municipal Police, said arrest warrants were issued for a total of 17 people over Tuesday’s violence after 39 complaints were filed with the court.

Outside of the courthouse yesterday, lawyers of the accused lambasted the ruling.

“I will soon file a complaint opposing the court’s decision in sending my client to prison, and requesting that the court let her stay outside of the prison,” Meng Sopheary, Sochua’s defence lawyer, told the Post.

Another lawyer, Ket Khy, said he would meet with his clients, Vann and Phirom, in Prey Sar this morning.

The charges came after a protest on Tuesday morning to “free Freedom Park” turned violent when opposition supporters responded to attacks from Daun Penh district security guards with brutal mob beatings.

Post reporters at the scene witnessed numerous guards being isolated, stripped of their clothes and mercilessly attacked by the crowd.

Yesterday, a member of staff at Calmette Hospital told the Postthat 22 people remained hospitalised following Tuesday’s violence.

Meas Phoeun, one of those beaten unconscious, was recovering from the attack.

Guards beaten senseless

“He woke up from unconsciousness on Tuesday night, and right now he can eat and speak a bit, but he is still weak and a doctor told him to sleep for a long time,” said Phoeun’s son, Meas Bunthan.

Bunthan added that his father was not a security guard but the chief of Phsar Thmey III’s Village 10.

In a press conference yesterday morning, the Council of Ministers said the protest was a “pre-meditated plot” to create chaos with hard-line supporters “armed with batons and other deadly tools”.

Phnom Penh Governor Pa Socheatvong said the CNRP elected lawmakers should be punished. “We consider it was the ambition of the CNRP’s leaders ... to incite people to create turmoil, instability, insecurity and disrupt public order in Cambodia,” he said.

Sochua, Phirom and Sothavarin were all initially detained at Freedom Park before being taken to police headquarters on Tuesday morning.

Later that day, Vann was detained after showing up at police headquarters.

At about 2am yesterday, Camerin was arrested while driving in Battambang province in an attempt to flee to Thailand, according to Chhuon Narin.

Narith was arrested at about 11am yesterday as rights group Licadho attempted to drive him to CNRP headquarters.

Senior government officials held a briefing late yesterday afternoon at the Ministry of Justice to explain to foreign diplomats why opposition lawmakers had been detained and charged, emphasising they were not exploiting the situation for political gain.

People stand at a barracks near Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday and wait for news of the detained CNRP members
People stand at a barracks near Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday and wait for news of the detained CNRP members. Vireak Mai

In opening remarks before the meeting moved behind closed doors, Minister of Justice Ang Vong Vathana said the government could not tolerate the “unlawful and brutal acts” incited by the opposition.

At a press conference afterwards, Interior Ministry Secretary of State Prum Sokha said that some diplomats had questioned whether the violence had been staged to increase political pressure on the CNRP to join parliament.

“The matter [of violence] yesterday was not to force political negotiations,” he said. “The [lawmakers-elect] are either guilty or not guilty and we will wait to see the final decision of the court.”

Four of the five lawmakers-elect in custody hold dual citizenship in Western countries.

Sochua holds US citizenship, Camerin holds Australian citizenship, Phirom holds New Zealand citizenship and Sothavarin holds French citizenship.

US Embassy spokesman John Simmons said in an email following the government’s briefing of the international community that the US condemned the violence and was calling for the release of the opposition lawmakers-elect.

“We call for the release of Mu Sochua and the other members of parliament in the spirit of political reconciliation,” he said.

Simmons added that the embassy was “attempting to provide” consular services to Sochua.

When reached yesterday morning, French Embassy first secretary Nicolas Baudouin said they were in contact with Sothavarin’s family to provide consular assistance.

“We are trying to have access to first-hand information on the events, including briefings from both parties involved. We are maintaining consultations among European partners regarding the situation.”

The New Zealand Foreign Affairs Ministry said in an email that it was aware of Phirum’s arrest and that the embassy in Bangkok was seeking an update. The Australian Embassy directed questions to the Foreign Ministry in Canberra, which could not be reached for comment.

In a statement released last night, UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Surya Subedi called on the government to “guarantee the constitutional right to peaceful assembly for all Cambodians” and “ensure the fair treatment of those arrested in strict accordance with the human rights standards relating to the administration of justice”.

At a press conference yesterday, CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha said that the party would hold a mass demonstration if the accused party members were not released, adding that the party would take a “peaceful” and “nonviolent” approach.

But political analyst Kem Ley said he feared yesterday’s ruling could lead to an uprising.

“So far, the CNRP has tried to limit the role of the activists by teaching peaceful demonstrations. I am worried now people will gather and do something illegally.... I think there will be more and more violence.”

The CNRP’s Chhay said he would consider resuming talks with the CPP but would not “agree to any deals under this kind of pressure”.

REPORTING BY BUTH REAKSMEY KONGKEA, MEAS SOKCHEA, ALICE CUDDY, VONG SOKHENG, KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA, KEVIN PONNIAH AND CHEANG SOKHA

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