A court in Cambodia on Friday held a trial for prominent union leader Rong Chhun on charges of “incitement,” drawing criticism from his lawyer who said the judge’s line of questioning assumed the defendant’s guilt.
Scores of Cambodian civil society groups have condemned the arrest of the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Trade Unions, demanding that the government release him and drop charges he faces over his criticism of the country’s handling of a border dispute with Vietnam.
Rong Chhun, who is also a member of the Cambodian Watchdog Council, was jailed at Prey Sar Prison on Aug. 1, a day after his arrest for claiming the government has allowed Vietnam to encroach on farmland along their shared border. He faces two years in prison if convicted.
Defense lawyer Sam Sokong told RFA’s Khmer Service after the proceedings that questions put to Rong Chhun by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday sought to place the burden of guilt on his client, rather than determine whether the charges against him are valid. He maintained that Rong Chhun’s statements about the border were made as a citizen exercising his right to freedom of expression as guaranteed by national and international law.
Sam Sokong said the judge questioned his client about the creation of the Cambodia Watchdog Council, his border inspection activities, and his issuance of a statement on the border dispute, as well as an interview he gave to RFA in July 2020.
Rong Chhun told the judge that the Cambodia Watchdog Council was established legally in 2002 and has never faced problems with the authorities. He said his visit to the border was a “fulfillment of social work” and conducted as a Cambodian citizen. His statement on the border dispute was based on information he gathered from local residents and was within his rights to make, he added.
“[Rong Chhun’s] main goal [in visiting the border] was to ask citizens about land disputes,” Sam Sokong said. “Rong Chhun issued a statement that does not reflect his personal views, but rather those of the people.”
In addition to Rong Chhun’s trial, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court heard cases on charges of incitement against Ton Nimol, an activist with the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP); Sar Kanika, the president of the Cambodian Informal Laborers’ Association (CILA); and Suong Sophorn, head of the little-known Khmer Win Party. All four cases were adjourned until Feb. 3.
Soeng Senkaruna, a spokesman for the Cambodian rights group ADHOC, echoed Sam Sokong’s concerns about the judge’s questioning of Rong Chhun during his hearing.
“Most of the questions posed by the judges were burdensome on Rong Chhun,” he said. “I think there should have been more questions to extenuate rather than attenuate.”
Message to the public
Friday’s hearing was also observed by civil society officials; diplomats from Japan, Australia, Germany, the U.S., and the European Union; and a representative from the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia.
During the proceedings, authorities prevented detainees’ relatives, as well as members of civil society groups and the media, from gathering near the court compound.
Rong Chhun’s nephew, Rong Vichea, told RFA that he last visited his uncle on Thursday. He said Rong Chhun remains in good physical and mental health, adding that his uncle told him to convey a message to the public not to be dispirited by mounting persecution and prosecutions by the authorities against voices of dissent.
“My uncle remains courageous, resolute and strong. He maintains his position that he did nothing illegal, as charged by the court,” Rong Vichea said.
“Most importantly, in a democratic society, when we as citizens see democratic space shrinking and society deteriorating, if we do not unite together to think about our rights and freedom, our livelihoods and the loss of our interests, our present society and the future generation will suffer further harm.”
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