Youth Activists Make Their Final Pleas in Trial’s Close

5 min read
Activists protest in Phnom Penh on September 7, 2020, in a photo posted to the Facebook page of the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association.
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One activist, a former monk, asked to be allowed to serve the sentences of two of his fellow defendants in their place. Another said the judge should spend some time at a meditation center. A third defendant, who spoke that she could not expect justice in an unjust society, was slapped on the arm by a court guard for putting a hand behind her back while being questioned.

The trial of activists who protested in support of jailed unionist Rong Chhun, including several members of nationalist groups Khmer Thavrak and the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association, came to a close in a 3.5-hour session on Tuesday morning at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

Ten of the defendants, who were present, were arrested in the later part of last year as small nationalist protests emerged in the wake of Chhun’s statement that Cambodia was losing land to Vietnam along undemarcated border in Tbong Khmum province and his subsequent arrest. Five others, including politicians, were tried in absentia.

The 15 were charged with incitement to disturb social security or instigating incitement and face up to two years in jail.

On Tuesday, taking the stand for the last time before a verdict is expected next month, the accused variously protested their innocence, asked for a fair judgment, and spoke of their concerns and hopelessness.

The first part of the hearing focused on questioning Khmer Thavrak activists Hun Vannak and Chhoeun Daravy about whether they gathered people to protest, their sources of income, and relations with members of the outlawed main opposition CNRP.

Vannak and Daravy denied knowing any former CNRP lawmakers, said they did not gather people to protest, and added they had not received funds from overseas. People had simply joined from various places and backgrounds, they said.

“We are like a group that welcomes all people,” said Vannak, 39. “We don’t have permanent members or core members. Anyone who was interested could just join.”

Daravy fidgeted, swaying left and right. Her hands were behind her back, with elbows out, as a courthouse guard slapped her arm down, and told her to keep it down.

Other defendants shouted against the guard, as the judge told them to keep order. Later, Daravy took off her slippers and handed them to other defendants behind her, saying she couldn’t stand the situation.

Daravy, 31, an art teacher, denied the charges against her, saying she simply respected Chhun. The judge questioned her over equipment they had confiscated from a studio in her rented room, which she used to make live broadcasts.

Deputy prosecutor Sam Rithy Veasna gave a closing statement asking the court to punish all the accused, while defense lawyers said there was no evidence of wrongdoing.

The accused then made their final requests. Chhuo Pheng, a former CNRP activist, asked for a fair decision; Chum Puthy, another CNRP activist, asked the judge to drop the charge and release him; Kong Sam An, a third CNRP activist, asked for his release so he could be with his family again. He said that there will be justice if the law comes from a good person.

Youth activist Mean Prum Mony thanked those who participated in an “unjust trial.” He maintained his innocence under the country’s Constitution.

“I never caused chaos in society. Instead, I promoted the rights of people and protected natural resources. We have never done anything to affect society,” he said, adding that he had already been in prison for almost a year.

“If such an act befell family members of the prosecution, or of the judge, how much would it hurt you?” he asked, as presiding judge Tith Sothy Borachhad tried to stop him. Prum Mony continued to criticize the court for lacking independence.

Muong Sopheak, of KSILA, asked the judge to spend some time meditating at a meditation center in Battambang; Khmer Thavrak’s Eng Malai spoke quietly and with sadness that she had faced persecution in prison. “I hate injustice the most. I love justice,” Malai said.

Koeut Saray, a former monk and a Khmer Thavrak member, asked the court to consider letting him serve the sentences of Daravy and Malai if they are found guilty. The two are facing difficulties with health and other issues in prison, Saray said.

“I would like to cover their sentences,” he said. “If the two are released, I will be happy.”

Vannak asked the court to make sure prisoners are fed before being sent to court for trial, as giving testimony in court is difficult and could have serious repercussions.

Daravy expressed her thanks to observers of the trial, but said she would not thank the judge as she knew what the verdict would be.

“If [you] want to sentence, please sentence me. I am willing to accept the sentence alone because I don’t expect justice from an unjust society,” Daravy said. “At this time, [I] cannot expect justice from all of you.”

Referring to the other activists behind her, Daravy continued: “Since we were all active the same as each other, so we reached this hell.”

Last week, Chhun, the unionist, was found guilty and sentenced to two years in prison, while co-defendants Ton Nimol and Sar Kanika, who had protested in support of Chhun, were sentenced to 20 months. The three were fined 2 million riel each as well as ordered to jointly compensate $100,000 to Cambodia’s national border committee.

In February, Khmer Win Party leader Suong Sophorn was also sentenced to 20 months in jail and ordered to pay 2 billion riel, or about $500,000 to the border committee for protesting in support of Chhun.

A verdict is expected on September 28.

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