Seven Years in Prison for Trio at 2014 Protest Fight

Three men whose arrests were ordered by Prime Minister Hun Sen for a street brawl that broke out at a July 2014 protest decried Cambodia’s corrupt judicial system as judges on Monday found them guilty of “joining an insurrection” and sentenced them to seven years in prison.

Yon Kimhour, 29, Roen Chetra, 33, and Yea Thong, 44, were jailed on August 5, two weeks after 11 CNRP activists were found guilty of leading and joining an insurrection over the opposition protest at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park.

Roen Chetra walks into the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday ahead of his sentencing for 'joining an insurrection' in July 2014. (Siv Channa/ The Cambodia Daily)
Roen Chetra walks into the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday ahead of his sentencing for ‘joining an insurrection’ in July 2014. (Pring Samrang/Reuters)

They went on trial last month.

During two days of hearings, two of the men told the court that they were only defending themselves, while the third denied ever fighting anyone.

Yet each was found guilty on Monday.

“The Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s panel of judges has decided to sentence, first, Roen Chetra, second, Yun Kimhour, and third, Yea Thong, to seven years’ prison each for joining an insurrectionary movement,” Presiding Judge Mong Mony Sorphea announced.

The decision led the defendants to draw comparisons to three of Mr. Hun Sen’s bodyguards, who were found guilty last month of pulling two opposition lawmakers out of their cars and beating them as they left the National Assembly in October.

“It’s very unfair! Beating lawmakers gets a sentence of four years,” Mr. Chetra said, standing up after the verdict was announced. “They beat others until they had to be hospitalized in Thailand, with broken arms and broken noses, and it was four years in jail.”

The CNRP’s two lawmakers were evacuated to Thailand for treatment, with the three bodyguards convicted of intentional violence and sentenced to serve only a year in jail with the rest of their sentences suspended.

As he was escorted from the courtroom on Monday, Mr. Chetra said the handling of the two cases spoke volumes about the state of the judiciary.

“The courts in Cambodia are not independent. No transparency and no independence,” he said.

The three sentenced on Monday were arrested over a street brawl in which protesters hit back at attempts by the notoriously violent Daun Penh district security guards to end their protest. The guards had for months beaten anyone trying to protest at Freedom Park against the government’s ban on public demonstrations, which came after its deadly repression of a nationwide strike of garment workers and mass CNRP demonstrations in January 2014.

Led by CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, the protest marked the first time anyone fought back against the guards. Many guards and protesters were sent to the hospital, but none sustained long-term injuries.

Mr. Chetra and Mr. Kimhour both testified on May 5 that they had only fought back after the district security guards attacked them for failing to heed their orders to stop putting up political banners and leave the area.

Mr. Kimhour did not speak to reporters at court, but Mr. Thong, who testified on May 31 that he had played no part in the violence and only helped the injured guards, said he was not surprised by the sentence.

“Nothing about this is remarkable because the courts in Cambodia are not fair to people,” he said.

During his hearing on May 31, Mr. Thong said he had simply happened upon the protest while driving his wife to work and had stopped to film the events. An incredulous judge appeared to abandon any presumption of innocence, asking him why he would have been arrested had he just been filming.

At no point during the trial were any photographs or videos of him taking part in the violence presented to the court. Instead, videos shown by the prosecutors during the trial showed him filming the events.

Mr. Thong declined to comment further on Monday, but his wife, Pol Romduol, 40, denounced the verdict.

“There is no justice, brother, because my husband did not do anything wrong,” she said outside the courtroom. “Courts in Cambodia are not fair for the powerless people.”

Mr. Kimhour’s mother, Sorn Sokhom, 52, said she was beside herself with grief.

“My son made no mistake. He did not beat anyone…. He helped others. So why are they charging and sentencing him to seven years?” she said.

“For those who beat the lawmakers, they only have a few more months and they will leave [prison].”

Justice Ministry spokesman Kim Santepheap, asked about the discrepancy between the sentences handed down to the three protesters and to Mr. Hun Sen’s bodyguards, said that everything had been handled appropriately.

“In my opinion, civil society, before making evaluations on the judgement of the judges, should find out about the law,” he said, explaining that punishment was decided at the judge’s discretion.

“If they don’t understand, they can request that the Justice Ministry open a training course to make them understand the law,” he said. “Before they think and talk, let them look at the law.”

[email protected]

© 2016, The Cambodia Daily. All rights reserved No part of this article may be reproduced in print, electronically, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without written permission.