sihanoukville – Two employees of the human rights group Licadho and eight protesters have been formally charged in the weekend riots here, court officials said Wednesday.
The prosecutor and investigating judge said that the 10 have been charged with property damage and robbery, including the theft of a substantial but undisclosed amount of money from the deputy governor’s house.
In the case of the Licadho workers, it was unclear Wednesday if incitement of the protesters had been formally filed as a third, separate charge. But the intention of the court to pursue that matter was clear.
“The prosecutor has charged the Licadho individuals of leading an illegal demonstration that turned violent with robbery and property damage,” said Keo Sokhan, the investigating judge who received the prosecutor’s paperwork on Wednesday. “We have hard evidence, but we still have to investigate the case before having a public hearing [trial].”
Rights workers said they understood the charges against the Licadho employees to be of just property damage and robbery. Those charges carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison under Untac law provisions.
The formal charges are believed to be the first brought against employees of a human rights organization in Cambodia. At least five people were injured in weekend protests that resulted in damage to several government buildings and First Deputy Governor Khim Bo’s residence.
Rights workers said they are not against prosecuting those protesters who damaged and looted property.
But they argue that, to the best of their knowledge, the two Licadho employees were just doing their jobs—advising protesters of their rights and monitoring the demonstrations.
The UN, Human Rights Watch Asia and an umbrella group of Cambodian rights organizations all have said that the arrests of Licadho employees Kim Sen and Meas Minear constitute a potential threat to the work of human rights defenders throughout Cambodia.
But Keo Sokhan, the investigating judge, stressed Wednesday that the case is not an attack on Licadho as a whole, but an investigation of two individuals.
Mam Muth, the prosecutor, said that the court has photographs, tape recordings, a petition and eyewitness accounts implicating the two Licadho workers.
Keo Sokhan indicated that the court views the petition, which was thumbprinted by 727 market vendors and other concerned residents, as encouraging the violent protest.
Rights workers especially are fighting to get the two Licadho employees, who remain in jail, released on bail while the investigation continues. An investigation could take four to six months, court officials said Wednesday.
“We guarantee that they will not run away, so why refuse the bail?” asked Kek Galabru, Licadho director. She also asked for proof that the two had violated the law.
Keo Sokhan confirmed that he received an appeal Wednesday from Licadho lawyers to release the two staff members. He said he will decide on that request within five days.
“The court could release them,” he said. “But sometimes we can’t…because they could contact eyewitnesses or otherwise destroy evidence. That would affect the investigation, so we might keep them in jail.”
Mam Muth, the prosecutor, denied rumors that a top government official had ordered the arrest of the Licadho employees.
“This was independent. There was no order from top officials,” he said.
Mam Muth added that he does not care about the criticism from rights groups. “The most important thing is the proof. That is the rule of law,” he said. “The evidence is not complete to prosecute so we still take more time to investigate and collect all the details.”
Keo Sokhan also said Wednesday that the police are asking for arrest warrants to be issued for “no more than 10” additional protesters.
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