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Political, Youth Activists Recant Testimony at Rong Chhun Protests Trial

Rong Chhun, center, President of the Cambodian Trade Union Confederation, uses a megaphone during a protest near the prime minister's residence in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
Rong Chhun, center, President of the Cambodian Trade Union Confederation, uses a megaphone during a protest near the prime minister's residence in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Wednesday, July 29, 2020. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

Political and youth activists, who are being tried for protesting the arrest of prominent unionist Ron Chhun, recanted their statements during a hearing on Tuesday, claiming they were coerced to confess.

The trial involves 15 defendants, five of whom are living overseas, including former Australian local politician Hong Lim. The other defendants are from youth groups Khmer Thavrak and the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association, as well as activists from the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party.

The five others include former CNRP officials Kong Saphea, Ho Vann, Ou Chanrith, and Seng Mengbunrong, and former Australian politician Hong Lim.

Youth activists were protesting on the streets of Phnom Penh following the July arrest of Rong Chhun, who is also being tried for incitement for comments he made about Cambodia’s border demarcation with Vietnam. Police used heavy-handed tactics to break up these protests and arrested more than a dozen activists for their participation.

During the second hearing of the trial on Tuesday, Judge Tithsothy Borachhard and Deputy Prosecutor Sam Rithyveasna questioned former CNRP activists Chhour Pheng, Chum Puthy, and Kong Sam An, and KSILA Vice President Mean Prommony.

Both Chhour Pheng and Chum Puthy complained about being made to give “coerced” confessions shortly after being arrested at Wat Than monastery in Phnom Penh on August 4, 2020. Both said they were arrested while observing the police raids at the pagoda to nab activist monks.

Chhour Pheng told the court he was not even sure what documents he was putting his thumbprint on. “I was putting my thumbprint just for the sake of stamping it because I knew that I would be sent to jail regardless,” Chhour Pheng said.

He added the police officers who were questioning him “convinced” him to confess to the alleged acts with the promise that it would result in a more lenient sentence.

After Chhour Pheng, Chum Puthy – former CNRP youth activist in Svay Rieng’s Svay Teab district​ – told the court he was having trouble with his memory due to effects from the radio signal jamming equipment used at Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh.

Judge Tithsothy Borachhard asked the Chum Puthy whether he remembered giving testimony to the judicial police, the prosecutor, and the investigating judge, to which the defendant, who was struggling to string sentences together, denied making any confessions.

“I do not recognize those answers as genuine because [the police] took my phone to check and kept asking me questions. I was fearful and exhausted so I answered as they pleased,” Chum Puthy said.

Deputy Prosecutor Sam Rithyveasna immediately challenged Puthy’s claims. “If you were afraid, why were your answers to me back then and to the investigating judge consistent and complementary to each other?”

Five judicial police representatives were in the courtroom during the questioning but were not called by the judge for cross-examination. Their presence was earlier challenged by the defense team, but Judge Tithsothy Borachhard said the five could remain in the court because they had a right to defend their investigation.

Phnom Penh Municipal Police Spokesperson San Sokseiha defended the police’s works in arresting the defendants and for their investigative techniques.

“Bringing in any suspects for questioning is not anything but how law enforcement works and there was no such coercion,” San Sokseiha said.

When Kong Sam An, a former CNRP official from Prey Veng, was on the docket, the prosecutor alleged that demonstrating against the arrest of Rong Chhun was tantamount to pressuring the court system.

“Are you aware that such a demonstration is a form of placing pressure on the court’s decision?” queried Sam Rithyveasna.

Kong Sam An said one’s expression of fundamental rights could not be seen as an attempt to coerce the authorities.

“I think it was a suggestion and expression in which I believe as a civic right and freedom. No one was disturbed when I was [protesting].”