The Appeal Court on Wednesday concluded proceedings in the case of 11 former CNRP activists previously convicted on charges of “insurrection” over a 2014 protest that turned violent, with prosecutors claiming the brief melee was a revolution in the making and defenders insisting the evidence did not support the hefty charge.
Over the course of three days, the court heard plaintiffs’ and defendants’ statements, viewed videos of the protest, considered arguments from the lawyers and heard closing remarks from the accused themselves. Judge Plang Samnang said on Wednesday that the court will now deliberate on the evidence and return on May 10 with a verdict.
The 2014 protest was organised by Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers to request that a government blockade of Freedom Park be lifted. But the protest quickly turned violent after security guards moved to crack down on demonstrators, only to find themselves on the receiving end of a violent backlash by protest participants.
The protest took place at a time of heightened political tensions between the CNRP and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, and the 11 activists’ arrests over the following months occurred as the parties wrestled over the CNRP’s boycott of parliament following its narrow loss in the 2013 national elections. The case at the time was widely seen as being politically motivated. The CNRP has since been forced to dissolve over unsubstantiated accusations it was fomenting a foreign-backed “revolution”, a move met with near-universal condemnation.
Wednesday’s session began with the prosecutors asking the panel of three judges to uphold the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s 2015 conviction of the 11 former CNRP activists, claiming that the protesters had pre-planned their violent outburst against security guards and asserting that the activists’ attempt to defy a government order banning entry to Freedom Park constituted an insurrection.
“This could have led to a colour revolution,” said prosecutor Ngeth Sarath, echoing a common government refrain used to justify the forced dissolution of the CNRP.
“By preventing this act of violence on time, those groups have been successfully stopped.”
Insurrection is defined under the law as “collective violence liable to endanger the institutions of the Kingdom of Cambodia or violate the integrity of the national territory”.
While offering little evidence of the threats to institutions and territories, Sarath maintained that the protest had been a well-planned event and an act of violent disobedience led by the 11 activists sitting in the courtroom.
Sarath also claimed it was actually the protesters who wielded batons in the 2014 melee and not the security guards, despite video evidence to the contrary showing the guards – armed with batons – violently beating participants.
However, he added, the Interior Ministry is legally allowed to hire such guards, and their use of batons during a violent protest was acceptable.
“So based on the videos, the security guards did not start the violence,” he said.
In conclusion, he said the Freedom Park protest cannot be seen as an exercise in freedom of expression, because the blockade was a legitimate and reasonable order of the authorities and the only recourse activists had was to file a court complaint.
“To sum up, the act committed by all the accused affected security and public order of the country,” he said. “It was stopped because in the future people will see your incitement and the people can rise.”
Civil party lawyers, meanwhile, claimed that the 11 were part of an organised attempt to incite violence at the protest, resulting in serious injuries to their clients – most of whom belong to the notorious Daun Penh district security guard unit, which has earned a reputation for brutally cracking down on nonviolent protests.
Civil party lawyer Cheng Penghap insisted that the presence of a loudspeaker at the rally used by lawmakers to address participants showed an intention to incite.
“This is to push, to encourage and to incite the public to feel angry against the government,” he said.
He then turned to how the protests resulted in injuries to his clients, claiming opposition supporters beat them with plastic pipes filled with cement they had used as flagpoles.
“We can prove that this was a well-organised plan to cause violence. And this activity led to serious injury to my clients,” he said.
Defence lawyer Choung Choungy, however, responded with a detailed – and forcefully delivered – legal argument illustrating how none of the activists’ actions fit the legal definition of insurrection.
Choungy said no evidence to support any of the seven legal requirements to prove an insurrection, as spelled out in the Criminal Code, had been produced in the court so far.
Article 457 of the Cambodian Criminal Code lists those seven points as: building barricades to obstruct public forces, forcibly occupying a building, destroying a building, personally carrying a weapon or explosive, inciting participants, usurping lawful authority and transporting supplies for “insurgents”.
He said that contrary to the prosecution’s claims, the evidence on record – from a video of defendant Meach Sovannara extolling nonviolence to the crowd, to the fact that none of the participants were found with guns or explosives – only goes to show that the day’s events did not constitute an “insurrection”.
“There was no insurrection movement led by my clients on that day,” Choungy said.
“Was there violence that day? Yes. Was there collective violence organised by my clients? No,” he said, adding that none of the 11 defendants had attacked the security guards.
“Even the security guards did not specify who committed the violence against them but the police still arrested my clients,” he said.
The remaining five defence lawyers made similar points, insisting that violent clash between protesters and guards did not amount to a threat to national security.
“Did we see a colour revolution? A public gathering can be accused of being a colour revolution? I am speechless as a legal professional,” said defence attorney Meng Sopheary.
Close to the end of the hearing, all 11 accused were allowed to make statements to the court, with many asking the charges be dropped so that they could reunite with their families.
Seemingly alluding to the case’s political undertones, defendant Tep Narin asked the presiding judge to deliberate carefully and not be influenced by others behind the scenes, bringing a small smile to Judge Samnang’s face. Sovannara thanked the court to follow legal procedures, adding he hoped to get back to his family overseas.
“I hope they let me free before the graduation ceremony of my daughter in the US,” he said.
Following the close of the hearing and Judge Samnang’s announcement that the verdict would be delivered on May 10, Sovannara told reporters the decision could hinge on the upcoming registration of political parties for this year’s election, which starts on April 30 and ends May 14.
“The government will wait to see if opposition members register parties before the deadline and open negotiations with them,” he said. “Then they will probably release us.”