PHNOM PENH - A Cambodian court will rule shortly on charges brought against three military personnel who have confessed to beating two opposition politicians outside the National Assembly in October.
The judicial outcome is being widely viewed as a litmus test for human rights in Cambodia, where a government crackdown on dissent has resulted in a profusion of lawsuits and the jailing of opposition politicians and their supporters.
Kung Sophea and Nhay Chamraoen of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) were severely injured by the beatings, which followed anti-opposition protests led by General Kun Kim and members from the prime minister's Bodyguard Headquarters (BGH). The confrontation shocked the nation and international human rights observers.
Sot Vanny, Mao Hoeun and Chay Sarit surrendered to police in mid-November after Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly urged them to do so. They insisted they acted alone, out of anger, and said they were not part of an organized effort to silence the opposition, as alleged by groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW).
They said they retaliated after the two politicians taunted and insulted them, accusing them of being Vietnamese puppets. The two lawmakers were beaten so brutally that they were sent to Thailand for treatment.
A new HRW report, Dragged and Beaten, The Cambodian Government's Role in the October 2015 Attack on Opposition Politicians, alleges the beatings were orchestrated from the upper echelons of government and the military with many more taking part in the attacks.
“It appears that there's a deeper involvement by the bodyguard unit than has come out so far and that this needs to be thoroughly investigated and anybody involved with these attacks needs to be held accountable,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of HRW's Asia division.
The HRW report includes eye witness accounts, videos and photographs that indicate at least 20 people were in the immediate area of the politicians and their cars during the assault. Another 10 were directly involved with the beatings while the others watched on and did nothing.
After the attacks, demonstrators were trucked to a hotel in Takhmao, not far from Hun Sen's private estate.
According to the report, “a driver of one of the vehicles later said one of the [bodyguard] commanders in his vehicle bragged about having participated [in a] hands-on in a beating.”
“The bodyguard unit has long been notorious for serious human rights violations, including the March 30, 1997 grenade attack on a rally led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy that killed at least 16 people and injured more than 150,” the report says.
HRW said plans for the demonstrations were known by Hun Sen and were carried out through a chain of command that included General Kun Kim, and BHQ, whose orders to mobilize were passed through Facebook to the Senaneak, one of three youth groups established in recent years to promote the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).
“The story that these guys, three guys were sitting around drinking coffee and then heard about a protest and went to check it out and only attacked these people when they were insulted, you know just beggars belief,” Robertson said. “This is sort of a typical, lousy CPP cover-up story that everybody has repeated according to the script and the only reason they're getting away with it is that the prosecutors and the judges are in the hands of the CPP as well.”
“It's a matter for the courts, not the government,” said government spokesman Phay Siphan, who deferred further questions to the ministry of justice, whose representatives declined to comment.
But prominent CNRP politician Son Chhay said he agrees with the report's findings and added the opposition was still waiting to hear from the United Nations over its calls for an international conference by signers of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords to help ensure the safety of politicians and help stabilize what it says is a hostile political environment in Cambodia.
“We're quite frustrated. We have sent a letter to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon explaining to him the political situation here. It's very urgent that [the] U.N. ought to do something. They need to stop ruling party, CPP, from doing damage to our party,” he said.
Saphea, the other opposition member who was beaten, told VOA Khmer that he would be thrilled if a full investigation would take place and more people, including the ring leaders, would be arrested, adding that he wants the government to work with the United Nations to investigate the attack further.
“Common people would not dare to beat up lawmakers; there must be powerful people behind the attack,” he said. “I think the idea of working with the UN to find justice for us is good, [as] I do not have faith in the government.
“I am not happy, because only three people confessed," he added. "There were many people beating me.”
HRW has also suggested that the government should seek assistance from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure an independent and impartial probe.
Interior Ministry Spokesman Khieu Sopheak said UN involvement in any investigation would constitute a violation of national sovereignty.
Arrests and lawsuits have followed the October beatings, prompting CNRP leader Sam Rainsy to flee into self-imposed exile. Another opposition leader is facing charges related to a sex scandal and Hun Sen has warned his ruling CPP will not tolerate “color revolutions.”
The warning appears to have been aimed at land and human rights activists who have donned black shirts while protesting the jailing of their peers on what many observers said are politically motivated charges. Protesters have also been arrested and only released after promising not wear black shirts or attend anti-government rallies.
Son Chhay said the two politicians who were beaten last year were still suffering from their injuries and that the emotional scars had cut deep.
“I think they recover but not fully recovered from that. You know they were very severely beaten and one of them would [have] died if we did not take him outside the country for treatment.”
A verdict in the trial is expected Friday.
VOA's Phorn Bopha contributed reporting from Phnom Penh.