A private phone conversation in which two former opposition officials in Battambang province allegedly spoke of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s death was the focus of an incitement trial at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday.
Ouk Chhum, 74, and Lous Chenglay, 51, who were arrested in July, stood trial in a case in which CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy, activist monk But Buntenh and former party youth activist Tun Bunthan were also charged in absentia.
Chhum, a former commune chief, appeared unsteady in his orange prison clothes as he faced questioning, repeatedly pressing his hands into his temples.
Judge Ros Piseth asked whether he had been in communication with Rainsy, Buntenh and Bunthan, and whether he knew how to use YouTube and Facebook.
Piseth also asked about a conversation Chhum allegedly had with Chenglay in July, in which they referred to Hun Sen “dying without a coffin” and his wife “starving to death.”
“This was your answer, wasn’t it?” the judge asked, referring to prior questioning by police and investigating judges.
Prosecutor Seng Hieng asked the former commune chief whether Chenglay had laughed when he spoke to him about Hun Sen.
Chhum, however, said he couldn’t remember the conversation.
“I have difficulty remembering, and I feel very upside down,” he said. “I have not talked to anybody … and I do not know how to use Facebook and YouTube.”
“The network has been broken up and I have not done any activities,” Chhum said of any ongoing involvement with the CNRP. The country’s main opposition party was banned in 2017, a widely criticized move that was followed by the arrests of dozens of former party members continuing to show support.
Chhum said he was now just a farmer. “I don’t have enough to support the family. I have not contacted anybody.”
The judge allowed him to take a short break outside the courtroom after seeing him struggle.
Chenglay, a former district party chief, in turn also kept up a series of denials, saying he too did not know how to use Facebook or YouTube, did not know Buntenh, and had only heard the word “Hun Sen” and little else when he spoke to Chhum because the connection was bad.
Defense lawyer Lor Chunthy said after the morning trial that authorities had yet to disclose how they claimed to know the content of the private conversation.
“The conversation was between two people … how could other people know it?” Chunthy asked. No audio recording was presented in court, he noted.
Hun Sen has this year boasted of having spies in Zoom calls and Facebook and Telegram groups.
Meanwhile, Rainsy was charged for a social media post calling on people to cease microloan repayments, Buntenh for criticizing the country’s chief monk, and Bunthan for posting about other various political issues on Facebook, the lawyer said.
About 50 people gathered outside the courthouse on Monday to protest the detentions.
A verdict is due on December 30. Incitement to disturb social security carries a potential jail sentence of six months to two years.
Additional reporting by Va Sopheanut