The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday charged at least seven opposition CNRP lawmakers-elect and a party activist with insurrection and incitement over a protest that turned violent on Tuesday, sending six of the group to Prey Sar prison.
Meng Sopheary, a lawyer on the defense team, said the entire group was charged with “leading an insurrection” under criminal code article 459 as well as “incitement to commit a felony” under article 495, both being in aggravated circumstances under articles 28 and 218.
If found guilty of all charges, the group, which includes U.S., French, Australian and New Zealand citizens, could be jailed for upwards of 30 years.
Another defense lawyer, Sam Sokong, said Investigating Judge Keo Mony had not granted bail to the six already arrested by police, a group that includes CNRP public affairs chief Mu Sochua.
“The judge decided to place six of the CNRP officials in pretrial detention at Prey Sar prison,” Mr. Sokong said by phone after a full day at the court. “In the court documents, eight CNRP officials are charged along with several other accomplices with no names.”
Municipal court prosecutor Keo Socheat declined to be interviewed while Judge Mony could not be reached.
Ms. Sochua, along with fellow opposition lawmakers-elect Men Sothavrin and Keo Phirum, were arrested at about 10 a.m. on Tuesday after a protest they were leading on Norodom Boulevard to reopen the heavily secured Freedom Park turned violent.
The protesters, wearing orange and yellow ribbons, began viciously fighting back against the Daun Penh district security guards who have often beaten demonstrators bloody during the past six months while enforcing a government ban on public gatherings.
Isolating the usually bellicose guards, who this time fled in all directions, the protesters showed little mercy, using plastic flagpoles and wooden sticks to beat the men. At least two were sent to intensive care.
Ms. Sochua, Mr. Sothavrin and Mr. Phirum were arrested as they attempted to leave the scene. Another lawmaker-elect present at the protest, Ho Vann, was later arrested when he went to visit the trio at municipal police headquarters.
All five were incarcerated at the police headquarters overnight. Real Camerin, another CNRP lawmaker-elect present at the protest, was arrested at 2 a.m. Wednesday while driving through Battambang province.
Oeur Narith, a party activist working under Ms. Sochua, was pulled from a car Wednesday morning in Chamkar Mon district and arrested as opposition CNRP supporters gathered near the Phnom Penh Municipal Court during the questioning.
Mr. Sokong, the defense lawyer, identified the other opposition lawmakers-elect who were charged as Long Ry, who is also the head of security for the CNRP, and Nuth Rumduol. Both of the lawmakers-elect were at the protest but have not yet been arrested.
At least three other CNRP lawmakers-elect—Cheam Channy, Sok Oumsea and Long Botta—were also at the protest on Tuesday but were not named in the court documents. All three were at the CNRP’s headquarters in Meanchey district Wednesday morning.
Mr. Rumduol, who stepped down as a senator after he won a National Assembly seat in Kompong Speu province in least year’s national election, said that neither he nor Mr. Ry were avoiding arrest.
“There is no reason for me and Long Ry to run away or escape because we have done nothing wrong,” he said.
Mr. Rumduol added that he had witnessed a third party of impostors enter the protest on Tuesday and begin beating the Daun Penh district security guards after the guards began their usual repression of the protest, sparking a frenzy in which other protesters joined.
Speaking from inside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court after being charged, Ms. Sochua dismissed the suggestion that the violent brawl between her supporters and the guards was insurrectionary.
“We are 100 percent innocent,” she said by phone.
“What we did was demand for freedom of expression in a non-violent manner,” Ms. Sochua said. “But every time we held a peaceful gathering, we faced violent repression by the security personnel.”
“Those security personnel provoked violence and started the violence on the protesters. On Tuesday, those security guards attacked the protesters but there was no intervention from police at the park.”
Ms. Sochua also echoed comments made by CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha during a morning press conference, saying she and the other imprisoned lawmakers-elect should have immunity from prosecution according to the government’s own account of its formation last year.
“I dare to say that we have immunity because Heng Samrin, the president of the National Assembly, announced on September 23, 2013, the recognition of 123 members at the National Assembly,” Ms. Sochua explained. “This proves that we have the immunity.”
Article 76 of the Constitution says that the National Assembly “consists of at least 120 members.” The CNRP, which won 55 seats in the disputed election, said that the assembly, which it is still boycotting, was unconstitutional with only the ruling CPP’s 68 lawmakers.
The CPP responded in turn that there were 123 members of parliament, whether or not the 55 from the CNRP decided to sit.
“If we are not recognized as having immunity, it proves that the current government and National Assembly are illegitimate,” said Ms. Sochua.
At an 11 a.m. press conference, Keo Remy, a spokesman for the Council of Minister’s Press and Quick Reaction Unit, described Tuesday’s violence as a premeditated act of anarchy organized on Facebook by Ms. Sochua and said the argument about immunity was spurious.
“They have not fulfilled the step of swearing in at the National Assembly, and so they can be arrested,” said Mr. Remy.
In the evening, Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana and Interior Ministry secretary of state Prum Sokha also led a two-hour closed-door meeting with foreign diplomats at the Justice Ministry.
After the meeting, Mr. Sokha said the diplomats had asked whether the arrests were related to the ongoing political stalemate between the CPP and CNRP—a charge he denied.
“If I tell a person to burn a house, and he goes and does it, I can’t then say ‘I didn’t do it.’ They still have to find that person that ordered the burning,” Mr. Sokha told reporters.
U.S. Embassy spokesman John Simmons said in an email after the meeting the embassy wished to see Ms. Sochua, a U.S. citizen, released.
“We call for the release of Mu Sochua and the other members of parliament in the spirit of political reconciliation,” he said.
The French Embassy also said it would be providing regular consular assistance to Mr. Sothavrin, a French citizen. The Australian Embassy, which provides consular assistance to New Zealand nationals, said it “stands ready” to provide assistance to Mr. Phirum, a New Zealand citizen, and Mr. Camerin, an Australian citizen.
Speaking by phone from France last night, CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who left Cambodia on June 14 for what was announced as a three-week trip, said that he had held a Skype conference Wednesday with the CNRP’s standing committee.
Mr. Rainsy declined to comment on what was discussed.
“I am in a remote place in France, an island in the middle of nowhere,” he said.
“I’m making preparations to come back as soon as possible.”
(Additional reporting by Mech Dara, Khuon Narim, Alex Willemyns and Colin Meyn)
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