Eight opposition activists in prison for their alleged involvement in an “insurrection” at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park in 2014 were questioned in the Appeal Court on Monday during a hearing contesting their convictions.
In all, 11 activists were convicted by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in 2015 for leading and participating in the alleged “insurrection” at Freedom Park during post-election demonstrations.
The case centres on a demonstration held on the outskirts of the park, which had been blockaded by security forces to prevent any political activity. The protest became violent when demonstrators, who for months had seen nonviolent rallies violently dispersed, turned on the notorious Daun Penh district security guards, badly beating several.
The defendants have maintained their innocence, with some saying that far from inciting the violence, they had actually attempted to quell it, and little evidence to support their direct involvement was presented in the lower court.
Three of the activists – Meach Sovannara, Ouer Narith and Khim Chamroeun – were sentenced to 20 years in prison for leading the supposed insurrection and were questioned in court prior to Khmer New Year.
The case came at a time of heightened tensions between the opposition and ruling parties following the disputed 2013 election, and many observers have contended that it was politically motivated.
The remaining activists were questioned on Monday about their knowledge of the protests and peppered with questions about who had initiated the violence, if the guards or protesters had been armed and if there had been a plan to occupy the buildings around the park.
The defendants include Ouk Pich Samnang, Sum Puthy, Neang Sokhun, San Seihak, San Kimheng, Tep Narin, An Butham and Ke Khim, who were each sentenced to seven years for participating in the alleged insurrection.
During the questioning, Pich Samnang said that he attended the protest only to demand the opening up of Freedom Park, which he contended was a symbol of the right to freedom of expression.
“They [the lower court] are crazy. They did not have enough evidence to sentence us,” he said, prompting a response from Prosecutor Nget Sarath to calm down.
Mao Piseth, a security guard from Daun Penh district’s Sras Chak commune, said that he was asked to manage traffic and public order at the protest but that someone had thrown a rock at his arm and punched him in the jaw.
“I did not file a complaint against someone specific but I filed against the group of protesters,” he said.
Another guard, Soun Piseth, was unable to answer basic questions asked by the judge, prompting Mao Piseth to step in to say his colleague had fainted a few weeks before and lost his memory.
The hearing will continue on Tuesday.