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Cambodian groups condemn conviction of 11 opposition party activists

Supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) are escorted by police officers at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, 21 July 2015
Supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) are escorted by police officers at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, 21 July 2015


This statement was originally published on on 23 July 2015.

On Tuesday, 21 July 2015, 11 activists of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) were sentenced to jail time ranging from 7 to 20 years by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court of First Instance, in connection with protests that erupted in July 2014 at Phnom Penh's Freedom Park. We, the undersigned civil society organizations, strongly condemn these convictions as based on trumped-up charges and characterized by a total disrespect for fair trial rights.

Meach Sovannara, Oeur Narith and Khin Chamreun were found guilty of participating in and leading an insurrectionary movement under article 456, 457 and 459 of the Criminal Code, and were sentenced to 20 years imprisonment. The eight others - Sum Puthy, Neang Sokhun, San Kimheng, Tep Narin, San Seihak, An Batham, Ouk Pich Samnang and Ke Khim - were found guilty of joining an insurrectionary movement under articles 456, 457 and 458 of the Criminal Code and were sentenced to 7 years imprisonment.

On 15 July 2014, demonstrators gathered at Freedom Park in Phnom Penh to support a CNRP rally calling for an end to the ban on public gatherings in the park. The peaceful protest escalated into violence with clashes occurring between Daun Penh district's security guards and protestors. Between August and November 2014, the 11 defendants were arrested for allegedly instigating or taking part in the violence and subsequently charged.

The trial started in December 2014 and continued on a discontinuous basis until Monday, 20 July 2015, when the presiding judge announced his decision to schedule the hearings on a daily basis, ignoring defense requests to take account of their clients' health issues. Defense lawyers objected, stressing that it would prevent their clients from exercising their right to have adequate time and facilities for the preparation of their defense. Due to their objection being ignored, the lawyers decided to boycott the hearings. On 21 July 2015, the Court called for closing arguments, despite only one of the nine defense lawyers being present and the request from the defendants for a delay. The judges then retired to deliberate and after 15 minutes announced the guilty verdict and the heavy sentences.

The verdict appears to have been based on a complete lack of evidence. No credible evidence supporting the claim that the defendants had planned an "insurrection," or that any of the 11 had themselves committed acts of violence, was produced during the trial. Prior to Monday's hearing, defense lawyers had been prevented from questioning their own witnesses. Among the 39 civil parties, only 9 were questioned. None of the 9 civil parties recognized any of the accused. The defense also filed requests to question other civil parties, but this too was denied.

This trial was unfair, rushed and lacked participation from defense lawyers and civil parties. The trial violated the defendants' fair trial rights, as guaranteed by the Cambodian Constitution and Criminal Code, including: the right to be legally represented; the right to prepare a defense; and the right to confront a civil party. By issuing such a verdict, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court of first instance has revealed a lack of commitment to implement and respect fundamental fair trial rights that is pervasive throughout the Cambodian judicial system.

The entire trial was marred by political interference. As noted by the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, the protesters were arrested during negotiations on reforming the National Election Committee ("NEC"), suggesting possible political motivation for the arrests. On 15 November 2014, Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak also stated that if the opposition were willing to collaborate more on the NEC, Meach Sovannara would not face a long jail term. In April 2015, the five activists who were being held in provisional detention were released on bail immediately following the formation of the new National Election Committee, suggesting further political interference in the judicial process. Tuesday's sentences were handed down amid a recent opposition walk-out following the adoption of the LANGO, the controversial NGO law, and continuing CNRP involvement with tensions along the Cambodian-Vietnamese border.

The judiciary in Cambodia continues to function as a political tool, rather than an independent and impartial institution. Citizens have the right to be protected by the law and to have access to a justice system that guarantees their fair trial rights. We, the undersigned civil society organizations, deplore this fundamentally unjust trial process and strongly condemn the conviction and sentencing of the eleven opposition activists.

This joint statement endorsed by:

1. Cambodian Alliance Trade Union (CATU), Mr. Rong Panha, 016930 706
2. Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Mr. Suon Bunthoeurn, 012 483 546
3. Cambodian Defender Project (CDP), Mr. Hong Kimsoun, 011 758 578
4. Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), Mr. Soun Bunsak, 092 344 357
5. Cambodian Labour Confederation (CLC), Mr. Ath Thon, 012 998 906
6. Committee for Free and Fair Election in Cambodia (COMFREL), Mr. Koul Panha,012 942 017
7. Cooperation Committee for Cambodia (CCC), Ms. Sin Putheary, 012 769 836
8. Equitable Cambodia (EC), Mr. Eang Vuthy, 012791700
9. Housing Rights Task Force (HRTF), Mr. Sia Phearum, 060 313 451
10. Independent Democracy of Informal Economic Association (IDEA), Mr. Vorn Pao, 012 534 796
11. SILAKA, Ms. Thida Khus, 012 838 464
12. Strey Khmer, Ms. Arun Reaksmey, 012 952 208
13. Coalition of Cambodian Farmer Community (CCFC), Mr. Theng Savoeun, 012 707 381

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