Soldiers Brought to Court for Beating Opposition Lawmakers

Three men who brutally beat two opposition lawmakers at last week’s pro-government protest outside the National Assembly were charged with intentional violence Wednesday, with an investigative official identifying them all as soldiers but not revealing their units.

The three soldiers—Chay Sarith, 33; Mao Hoeun, 34; and Suth Vanny, 45—were questioned at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court Wednesday after turning themselves in to authorities on Tuesday, said Meas Chanpiseth, a deputy prosecutor.

From left to right: Suth Vanny, Mao Hoeun, and Chay Sarith appear outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily and Pring Samrang)
From left to right: Suth Vanny, Mao Hoeun, and Chay Sarith appear outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily and Pring Samrang)

“Our prosecutors charged them with an intentional act of violence and intentional damage of property with aggravating circumstances under [penal code] articles 218 and 411,” he said.

The crimes carry a prison sentence of four to 10 years.

The prosecutor said he could not reveal what reason the soldiers gave for beating the CNRP lawmakers, explaining that their response was “a secret of the investigation.”

Sok Khemarin, director of the penal police department at the Interior Ministry and a member of the eight-man committee investigating the beatings, said he did not know what military positions the three held.

“The court charged them and has already sent them to prison,” Major General Khemarin said. “They’re all soldiers but I am not sure where they come from.”

Maj. Gen. Khemarin said the inquiry would probably not continue to search for more of the people pictured surrounding CNRP lawmakers Nhay Chamroeun and Kong Saphea at last week’s protest —unless the court orders it.

“Now we are waiting on the court procedures,” he said. “We have done our procedures but if the court orders us to do anything, we will continue to do work. It’s up to the prosecutor and the institution of the court.”

“We can continue to investigate more people. It’s up to [the trio’s] answers with the prosecutor,” he added.

Outside the court, asked why he had taken part in last week’s assault, Mr. Vanny said: “Because they cursed me,” before police led him away.

The trio of soldiers were among about two dozen people at a hundreds-strong pro-CPP protest who dragged Mr. Chamroeun and Mr. Saphea out of their cars as they left the Assembly, before repeatedly kicking and stomping on them.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) said last week that witnesses at the protest identified “elements of the prime minister’s bodyguard unit in civilian dress” at the protest, but Hing Bun Heang, the unit’s commander, denied any of his soldiers had been there.

Ou Virak, founder of the Future Forum political consultancy, said Wednesday that it was impossible that Maj. Gen. Khemarin and other inquiry members did not know which units of the military the three charged soldiers belonged to.

“If they are soldiers, they must know where they are from, who their bosses are, who their commanders are, who they take orders from. That is most important thing for this investigation,” Mr. Virak said.

“That the investigative committee says they do not know is irresponsible to say the least, and is definitely trying to hide facts. This is a simple thing, you do not need to be a genius to find it out,” he added.

“Their motive here is very important. Why were these people there beating the MPs? The video footage appears to show it was well-planned, and it appears it was ordered by someone higher up.”

However, Defense Minister Tea Banh said it was not his business that the soldiers assaulted elected lawmakers as they attempted to leave the parliament.

“It’s their issue,” General Banh said.

“Whatever they confessed, it will be like that, and this is their issue, so don’t ask me,” he added. “There’s professional authorities and a proper investigation.”

Gen. Banh said the soldiers would not be given any special treatment by the courts based on their connections within the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces.

“Whether they were underlings or not, when they broke the law, they will face the law. It doesn’t matter who they are. They must be under the law,” he said.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has accused Prime Minister Hun Sen of organizing the attack, said he was pleased the soldiers were being prosecuted but that he still believed a broader investigation into who planned the attacks was necessary.

“It’s a positive first step. At least things are now moving, but it may not be enough. The investigation has to go further to reach all those who are responsible for these attacks,” Mr. Rainsy said.

“If you look at the videos we can see more than three men, we can see a group of at least 10, and even up to 20 people who were taking part in the attack. How did the 10 people or 20 people assemble?” he said.

“Was it a complete coincidence? It is very unlikely that 10 to 20 people were doing things in such a coordinated manner, and with the lawmakers being led from one exit to another, it looks like a trap.”

On Saturday, HRW released a report based on interviews with Mr. Chamroeun and Mr. Saphea in which they recounted being directed away from the Assembly compound’s regular exits to a usually unused gate where their attackers were waiting.

Police posted to the protest also failed to intervene to stop the lawmakers being beaten, and civil society groups who regularly send staff to protests say they identified a number of plainclothes police and other state security forces among the crowd.

The protest, which called for deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha to stand down as Assembly vice president, was also promoted by Mr. Hun Sen in a speech the night prior, and coincided with soldiers being rallied to call for Mr. Sokha’s removal.

Despite accusations the ruling party planned the attacks, the Interior Ministry last week appointed two members of the CPP’s central committee—Interior Ministry Secretary of State Em Sam An and Deputy National Police Commissioner Chhay Sinarith—to lead the investigation into the beatings.

On Tuesday, the representative of the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia said the government would “benefit from explaining the independence and impartiality of the investigative team, or else reconsidering its composition so as to enhance its credibility.”

Yet Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak has argued that both Mr. Sam An and Lieutenant General Sinarith could put their ruling party loyalties aside to lead a credible police investigation.

However, Mr. Virak of the Future Forum said that if the official inquiry does not seek more culprits and question the military superiors of those already arrested, it could not be considered legitimate.

“For the investigation to be credible, they have to cast a wide net,” he said. “That means who the soldiers work for and who was making the orders needs to be investigated, so their higher-ups need to be investigated.”

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