PHNOM PENH - Cambodian prosecutors have charged five opposition MPs-elect with insurrection and incitement to violence, a day after a protest in the capital turned violent. The clash Tuesday began after a group of opposition MPs-elect and their supporters tried to gain entry to a public square in the Cambodian capital that the authorities have blocked for months.
Rights activists and journalists present at Tuesday’s protest say the violence erupted after district security guards tried to violently disperse several hundred opposition supporters outside Freedom Park in central Phnom Penh.
The violence then escalated after the protesters fought back against the guards, chasing down several and beating them.
Video footage of the clash shows savage violence being meted out to some guards. At least one was hit on the head with a rock; others were beaten with their own clubs. Some 40 people were injured, most of them the guards.
The government blames the opposition for the violence. At a news conference Wednesday, government spokesman Keo Remy claimed, among other things, that posts on Facebook proved opposition activists had planned the violence in advance.
“If you look at the nature of the violence, it is very brutal, it is very inhumane. The CNRP accuses the Royal Government of starting the violence, but this is truly an exaggeration. If this were true, then we can see the fact that the authorities - the security guards - with that many people with injuries, and from the CNRP activists they have no injuries at all, so we can see who started the violence,” said Remy, through a government translator.
Remy said the government would prosecute those whom it deemed responsible.
“We can assure that we will do our best to bring those ringleaders, those perpetrators to bear the responsibility before the law,” he added.
On Tuesday the authorities arrested four opposition MPs-elect at Freedom Park and held them overnight. Late Wednesday the four - plus another MP-elect who was arrested on Wednesday along with an opposition party worker - were charged with insurrection and instigating violence. The six now face up to 30 years in jail.
Rights group LICADHO said the six would be held in pre-trial detention in the capital’s Prey Sar prison, which is notoriously overcrowded.
Opposition spokesman Yim Sovann condemned the charges, and blamed the ruling Cambodian People's Party, or CPP, for unleashing its security guards on the protesters - who up to that point had been peaceful.
“Second, they arrest the MPs-elect with the immunity - it is against the constitution. It is against the law. So we demand the release unconditionally of our colleagues, MPs-elect, because they have done nothing wrong,” Sovann said.
The standoff between the government and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP, has been running for nearly a year. It began after last July’s general election, which saw the opposition make significant gains at the ballot box, winning 55 of parliament’s 123 seats.
The opposition has since claimed that voter fraud by the ruling CPP cost it victory. Despite months of negotiations, the two parties have failed to reach agreement, with the opposition refusing to take the 55 seats in the National Assembly to which its MPs-elect are entitled.
While the district security guards came off worse on Tuesday, that was in part because the well-armed riot police behind the razor wire fence surrounding Freedom Park largely failed to step in to help them.
In previous clashes, it was the district security guards who administered vicious beatings with batons, metal bars, and electric prods on protesters, bystanders and media. In May, both the United Nations human rights office and the Overseas Press Club of Cambodia condemned the wave of unprovoked attacks on media workers.
Other protests, however, have been far more violent. At least eight people - garment workers and bystanders - have been shot dead by the police and military in clashes over the past year. Although the Ministry of Interior says it is investigating those cases, it has yet to release its findings or charge anyone with the killings.