Trials of 25 unionists, garment workers, and men arrested at protests began at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday as crowds of supporters scuffled with police on the heavily barricaded road outside.
The hearings, which were carried out in three separate courtrooms, opened after a four-month wait behind bars for 21 of the men, who stand accused, along with two others previously bailed, of causing violence and damaging property during garment strikes in two factory districts on January 2 and 3. At least five people were shot dead and numerous injured by the authorities during those protests.
Two teenagers were also tried on charges of intentional violence for their roles in a November 12 clash near Stung Meanchey bridge between police and protesting SL Garment Factory workers, when the authorities also shot dead a bystander.
In Courtroom 1, 10 defendants rounded up and beaten outside the South Korean-owned Yakjin factory in Phnom Penh’s Pur Senchey district on January 2 had their case heard by Presiding Judge Keo Mony. Suspects were brought in in pairs and questioned one by one, with only four of the ten having a chance to address the court Friday.
Among the six who didn’t have the opportunity to answer questions was Vorn Pao, president of the Independent Democracy of Informal Economy Association union of tuk-tuk drivers and motodops, who has become a symbol of workers’ rights since his detention in the remote Correctional Center 3 prison in Kompong Cham province in January.
During his brief entry in the courtroom to present himself, Mr. Pao, 36, looked frail and hunched. He spoke only once, to implore that exculpatory witnesses be compelled to attend the trial. A number of witnesses for both prosecution and defense were unable to reach the court after being halted at the barricades at all sides.
“You were charged with damaging public property in January,” Judge Mony told the suspects—who were wearing orange prison jumpsuits with the words “suspect” on the back—before deputy prosecutor Ly Sophanna laid out his case.
“Tell the court that you knew exactly what was happening during the protest,” he instructed each of the suspects as two pictures taken outside the factory that day were projected onto a screen behind him.
“These show that the protests damaged the gate [of the factory],” he added.
When defense lawyer Sam Sokong asked how many soldiers were stationed outside Yakjin, Judge Mony reprimanded him sharply.
“The army was there because the anarchists came up to the gate and tried to destroy everything. The lawyer should ask how many armed guards were injured by rock-throwing,” the judge told Mr. Sokong.
One by one, the suspects defended themselves.
“‘I fell off my motorbike when I saw the soldiers with weapons attacking protesters there,” said 24-year-old Nakry Vanda, who insisted that he had merely been driving past the scene and had not participated in the protest.
His cousin Ret Ratha, also 24, testified that he had not been protesting, but saw rocks being thrown when the army’s elite Brigade 911 paratrooper unit was sent to break up the strike.
“I ran when the soldiers started using violence against the protesters,” he said. “I saw soldiers use electric batons.”
Chev Kimhab, the lawyer representing Yakjin, said the factory owner was injured and the gate destroyed.
A representative sent to the hearing by Brigade 911, Chu Eng, also testified that rocks and sticks were thrown by the protesters, and that he ordered their arrest when he saw them trying to move the gate.
Judge Mony said the case would be adjourned until May 6.
In Courtroom 2, the case against 13 people rounded up along Pur Senchey district’s Veng Sreng Street on January 3 was heard by Presiding Judge Leang Samnath.
The hearing focused mainly on introducing the allegations, and none of the assembled defendants was given the opportunity to answer questions other than stating their names and backgrounds. The case was also adjourned until May 6.
On that date, the suspects will face off against a litany of plaintiffs—more than 50 police and military police officers, some of whom are high-ranking.
Outside the courtroom, 36-year-old Meng Ay, whose husband Chea Saran is one of the accused, said she was unhappy about the two-week adjournment.
“I am very upset today, because the court officials did not question the defendants, who are being held unjustly in prison,” she said.
“I wanted the court to finish the trial today and give justice to my husband, because he did nothing wrong.”
Meanwhile, in Courtroom 3, two teenagers finally stood trial for their roles in a November clash in Stung Meanchey district between SL factory workers and police. The two are charged with property damage and intentional violence, but rights groups say they are scapegoats.
Vanny Vanan, 17, pleaded with the judge to release him from Prey Sar prison, where he has been detained since his arrest last year.
“I did not join in the incident. I did not join in throwing stones to attack the police. I did not burn the police car. I just stood and watched the incident with other people,” he said, adding that he had never been told why he was arrested.
“I did not receive my answer at the police station, because the police forced me and threatened me to confess,” he added.
Meas Non, 14—who has since been released on bail—told the court he threw “two or three stones” during the clash, during which police officers were seen firing indiscriminately into the crowd, killing one and critically injuring several others.
But one of the 40 plaintiffs, Meanchey district police officer Nib Vibo, 47, who was hit by a piece of metal hurled from a slingshot during the clash, claimed to have seen Vanny Vanan throwing stones.
“I demand $50,000 in compensation, because my life is worth a lot of money,” he added, before the case was also adjourned until May 6.
Outside the courthouse, there were periodic bursts of tension between supporters, riot police and district security guards as the morning drew on.
Monireth Boulevard was cordoned off on either side of the court, which deputy municipal governor Khoung Sreng said had been “a court order.”
Nay Vanda, deputy head of rights group Adhoc, said the trial should have been more inclusive.
“They should have an LCD screen to show the hearing, since it is a public hearing, so we should be able to see the trial,” he said.
At one end of the blockade, a pig’s head was offered up and incense burned as supporters and seasoned protesters from the Boeng Kak lake community appealed for the men’s release. Community members Kong Chantha, Yorm Bopha and Nget Khun were among those who managed to break through the police barrier, only to be pushed or carried back to the barricade.
Sitting in the shade nearby was Ok Sreysoun, 23, whose infant son lay in her sister-in-law’s lap, being fanned with a copy of the family book. Her husband, Ros Sophoan, 25, had already been detained for being involved in the Veng Sreng protests by the time she delivered the baby.
“He was arrested on January 3 and I delivered my baby on January 5,” she said. “My child has never seen his father’s face.”
(Reporting by Eang Mengleng, Khuon Narim, Khy Sovuthy, Mech Dara and Lauren Crothers)