The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on February 3 heard arguments in the case of Rong Chhun, head of the Cambodia Watchdog Council (CWC), and two other defendants on charges of “incitement to cause social chaos”.
Witnesses to the hearing observed one of Chhun’s defence lawyers bang on the table in front of him in vehement objection to “irregular” questioning of his client by the judge.
Chhun was charged in connection with a national border dispute in Ponhea Kraek district of Tbong Khmum province on July 20 last year. At the time, he led a working group to visit the area after receiving information that border demarcation poles allegedly erected by Vietnamese authorities had encroached on people’s farmland.
Present at the hearing with Chhun were co-defendants Sar Kanika and Ton Nimol and defence lawyers Sam Sokong, Chuong Chou Ngy, Ket Khy and Lor Chunthy.
The hearing was presided over by Judge Li Sokha with deputy prosecutor Seng Heang in attendance and lawyers Chhit Boravuth and Koun Saroeurn representing the government.
Before answering questions by Judge Sokha, Chhun said he had forgotten certain factual details because he had been jailed for seven months in a 20sqm facility that housed 40 prisoners and had a shortage of water.
Chhun declared that he was the head of the CWC, and his task had been to monitor the nation and the shortcomings of the government. He said he did not oppose the government but only sought to assist with its difficulties.
He told the judge that before going to visit the border area, he had heard on Radio Free Asia a broadcast concerning the suffering of people in Trapeang Phlong village who complained that they had lost their land to Vietnam. He then sought to reclaim the land for them.
“The main purpose of my visit to Trapeang Phlong village was to intervene so that the local people could continue to rely on their land for their livelihoods. I did not go to inspect the border. Rather, I went to see a land dispute, but the dispute concerned the border,” he said.
“The reason this is a border issue is because the poles were planted, encroaching on their land, and I wanted the Cambodian government to do something to reclaim their land. I did not do this to serve [my] personal interests,” he added.
He testified that after returning from Ponhea Kraek district, he issued a statement concerning the loss of residents’ land. But he said the statement was not critical of the government, and his arrest would only tarnish the image of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
After questioning Chhun, Judge Sokha questioned Kanika over protests demanding that the court release Chhun and separate plans to set up an association representing people working in the informal economy. Kanika explained that the association was an idea which had not yet taken shape.
“I asked for a good idea from teacher Rong Chhun concerning setting up such an association. I have contacted him from time to time,” Kanika said.
During questioning, Judge Sokha held up a sheet of paper with a picture depicting a blue mobile phone and asked Kanika if the phone belonged to her. She replied that it did, but in a heated moment, attorney Chou Ngy objected, saying that what the judge had presented to his client was a piece of paper, not the phone. When the judge repeated the question, Chou Ngy slammed the table in protest.
The judge also questioned Nimol about his relationship with Chhun, at which point Nimol said he had known Chhun for only two months. He said he admired Chhun for helping society by seeking to solve people’s problems. Before finishing questioning, Judge Sokha adjourned the case until February 17.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director for rights group Licadho, told reporters outside the courtroom that the court had questioned defendants about Facebook and Telegram communications with Chhun.
He said citizens have the right to express their views by all means including technological platforms, spoken speech or via other publications. If private communications are scrutinised by government, then speech is not free and cannot be called an individual right.
“This trial has certain tensions relating to some questions. When such questions are posed, they raise different issues,” he said.