Kong Sam An’s wife and two daughters were already on the verge of tears as they watched a judge sentence him to seven years in prison on Tuesday. Or was it two years? Or maybe five? Were any years suspended? Without a lawyer there, the family said they weren’t sure.
They watched as Sam An, an ex-CNRP official, was driven away from the courthouse in a prison van, holding up two hands, maybe seven fingers, apparently trying to inform his family of the years he would be locked up.
In distress, the family walked over to speak to the father of another defendant in the same case — the man’s daughter was on the run and he was not allowed inside the courtroom — as well as to reporters, who were also denied entry. Monitors from rights group Licadho were also not allowed in.
“I was very afraid and scared,” said Eab Sour, 65, imagining years without her 68-year-old husband. “I am aging.”
Daughter Kong Mouyly, 31, paced back across the parking lot looking for court officers who could explain the situation to her.
Human rights groups on Wednesday criticized the Tbong Khmum Provincial Court’s decision to bar rights monitors, reporters and even some family members from the sentencing of seven ex-CNRP officials. The CNRP, meanwhile, said it had always struggled to recruit lawyers, and pointed out that Tuesday’s sentencing was “not a trial.”
Former members of the party, which was banned in 2017, have faced widespread court actions against them, including more than 100 charged last year for allegedly supporting the return to Cambodia of party leaders living in exile abroad. Dozens have been summoned or sentenced this year, with the courts in many cases revisiting old charges.
On Tuesday, Sim Seangleng, Mean La, Yem Vanneth, Chok Hour, who are at large, and Sam An, who was detained earlier this month, were sentenced to seven years in prison for plotting, according to the Tbong Khmum court.
Van Sophat, who was sentenced in absentia, and Choem Vannak, who was seen near the court on Tuesday after joining the ruling CPP, according to ex-CNRP officials, also received suspended five-year sentences.
If a lawyer came, he would have known and understood the case, and he could have told me about it.
Sam An’s family traveled from Memot district to the court in Suong City alongside about 40 supporters. The group stood across the road as about 20 police officers watched from near the court compound’s gate.
After Sam An, a former CNRP Memot district council chief, arrived at the courthouse, the family members took food and money to him and waited outside the courtroom for the sentencing. Teary-eyed, they spoke to VOD about their anxieties, before a court guard asked the reporters to leave the area and wait at the gate. Citing a “clerk’s orders,” court officers said journalists would not be allowed at the sentencing.
“If a lawyer came, he would have known and understood the case, and he could have told me about it,” Sour, the wife, said on Wednesday. “If there was a lawyer who stayed very close, it would have been very good.”
But she did not blame her absent lawyer, knowing he had many cases to handle around the country, she said.
“The lawyer is alone and he has to run back and forth, so he could not keep up with it,” Sour said. “He is a lawyer so he is not heartless, but he has many cases.”
Sam Sokong, who represents CNRP supporters in cases across the country, said he could not go to Tbong Khmum on Tuesday because he had a trial to attend in Phnom Penh.
“I couldn’t join it, so the clients can go listen by themselves,” Sokong said.
It was difficult for opposition supporters to get legal representation because of political sensitivities, and the party itself had few lawyers, he said.
“We’ve lacked resources since the beginning for defending CNRP activists, because we defend them voluntarily,” Sokong said. “We just try to defend them as much as possible.”
It is a long fight and we must make our resources available for as long as the fight continues.
CNRP vice president Mu Sochua said a lawyer had attended the defendants’ earlier trial hearing on September 11, and emphasized that Tuesday’s hearing was a sentencing.
“Yesterday was for the judges to announce their decision for each case. Not a trial,” she said in an email.
The CNRP had a team of four lawyers who “can handle the situation” for the moment, and the party covers their travel expenses and accommodations, she said.
“[W]e are recruiting more lawyers to prepare for more cases,” Sochua said. “It is not easy to recruit lawyers who risk their career [and] safety.”
“It is a long fight and we must make our resources available for as long as the fight continues,” she added.
Court spokesperson Theng Cheang said he would check with colleagues about the decision to disallow monitors and reporters, but later could not be reached. Justice Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin said the decision could be related to security, but referred questions to the Tbong Khmum court.
The charges against these defendants were bogus and politically motivated from the start, so one suspects the court is barring monitors and media because they are ashamed to show the mockery of justice they are making with these proceedings.
Licadho monitoring manager Am Sam Ath said the sentencing should have been open to the public, including rights monitors and reporters. “This was a restriction,” Sam Ath said. “It caused suspicions.”
Closed-door hearings should be limited to cases involving minors and other exceptional cases that could affect the dignity of the defendant, he said. The law requires having a lawyer present when a criminal verdict is announced, and for the judge to make a clear announcement so people can understand, Sam Ath added.
Human Rights Watch deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said the denial of entry to trial monitors and even some family members was “a blatant violation of the right to a fair and public trial.”
“The charges against these defendants were bogus and politically motivated from the start, so one suspects the court is barring monitors and media because they are ashamed to show the mockery of justice they are making with these proceedings,” Robertson said.
Ming Yu Hah, Amnesty International’s deputy regional director for campaigns, said the right to a public hearing was an essential component of the right to a fair trial.
“Denying court access to human rights monitors and journalists without a legitimate basis fundamentally undermines the legitimacy of this trial and outcome,” Hah said. “In the context of a broader crackdown on CNRP members and activists, this decision to deny access to observers cements the perception that this case was politically motivated.”
Outside the court on Tuesday, Sour and Mouyly gave an emotional testimony, saying the family had nothing without their husband and father. When the group finally dispersed, supporters spoke to the three women that the community was behind them as they mounted their motorbikes toward Memot.