Prominent unionist Rong Chhun, whose July arrest over comments he made about the Vietnam border sparked a series of protests, on Wednesday appealed for bail in the Supreme Court, but was shut down by judges for asking the court to “not be politically influenced.”
Chhun claimed in July that he had researched the border in Tbong Khmum province and had found more than 100 “victim families” who were “pushed” away from the border by “yuon authorities,” using a word for Vietnamese often criticized as derogatory. Vietnam border issues have been a political flashpoint for years.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard his appeals for bail as well as against the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s decision to imprison him.
Chhun, who attended the hearing in an orange prison jumpsuit and had grown a long beard, told the presiding judge that he had not incited chaos as charged because no social disturbance had transpired.
He called on the judges to “make a ruling based on professionalism and not be politically influenced,” a statement quickly dismissed by Presiding Judge Kim Sathavy. Sathavy said the hearing was not about the facts of the case, but about his reasons for demanding bail.
Lawyers Choung Choungy and Lor Chunthy argued that Chhun was arrested based on a Facebook post when the government didn’t yet have a specific law regulating internet expression, and he could be trusted not to flee the country especially because of Covid-19 travel restrictions.
Chhun’s bail application was previously rejected by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and Appeal Court.
Supreme Court prosecutor Chan Dara Rainsy argued that Chhun could cause further social unrest if he was released, since he had supporters who believed what he said.
At the last minute, Chhun raised his hand to make a further appeal, but was again shut down by the presiding judge, who said that for the appeal hearing it was not important to have representation for the accused beyond his lawyers.
Chhun, the former president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, did not speak to reporters as he left the courtroom, with police officers escorting him and telling journalists not to ask questions or take photos. However, as he approached the prison van, Chhun said he would continue to contest the case.
Choungy, the defense lawyer, expressed frustration that the presiding judge had repeatedly barred his client from speaking out about his innocence.
“His rights should have been fully exercised, but the court restricted them,” Choungy said.
The Supreme Court’s decision on the two appeals will be announced on November 25.
Outside the court, about 20 people, most of them teachers, rallied to demand Chhun’s release.
Long Rim, 49, said he wanted to see Cambodia’s judicial system work for the nation rather than be under the influence of anyone.
“We call on the courts to be professional in making proper judgements, to serve the general public, and not be under the authority of any individual,” Rim said.
Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager for human rights group Licadho, said bail for political prisoners generally depended on the current political situation.
“An accused who is involved in a political situation is only [freed] when the political situation is better, when those who were involved in political issues tend to be released or given bail and pardons,” Sam Ath said.
Justice Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin said Chhun’s allegations about political influence were not a legal defense, and instead were accusations to cover up wrongdoing.
“On the contrary, if he wants to defend himself, he should seek strong legal evidence to exculpate him,” Malin said.