The former second deputy chief of Poipet commune in Banteay Meanchey province, who was sentenced to five years behind bars last year for leading a violent protest in Poipet town in 2015, pleaded for his release at a Supreme Court hearing on Wednesday.
Chao Veasna, who was formerly from the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), said he was merely trying to maintain order and security when a throng of cart-pullers gathered in front of the customs and excise office on May 25, 2015, to protest “exorbitant” fees charged by its officials.
The protesters allegedly attempted to “destroy” the office when they heard a shout that one of them died at a hospital after being beaten unconscious by Military Police officers. Veasna was accused of inciting them through his false claims, a charge he flatly rejected.
“At the time, I heard [cart-pullers] shout that one of them had succumbed to injuries after being rushed to the hospital. I just echoed after them, saying it was regretful and why [Military Police officers] mistreated my people,” he said.
When asked by prosecutor Veng Bunthoeun if he had received permission from the commune chief to keep order during the protest, Veasna said he was not legally required to do so.
“As a deputy commune chief, he explained, he already possessed a mission letter issued by the commune chief when he took office and therefore could fulfil his duties without prior permission.
Veasna said the mission letter tasked him with keeping order and security and that he had always reported to the commune chief. “I did not commit any wrongdoing. Please release me so that I can make a living to support my family,” he said.
Prosecutor Bunthoeun asked the court to uphold the verdict. Citing customs officials’ accounts, he said Veasna led the protest and shouted that one of the workers had died. That, he added, prompted the protesters to storm the office in an attempt to destroy it in revenge.
Bunthoeun said the fact that Veasna was a deputy commune chief made the enraged workers believe him and resort to violence.
He asked the Supreme Court to reverse the provincial court’s charge from Article 29 of the Criminal Code to Article 28.
“Since his arrest, the situation in Poipet town has been calm and peaceful. Please uphold the Appeal Court’s verdict,” he urged.
Defence lawyer Chuong Chou Ngy said his client was innocent and was just doing his job. Under Article 40 of the Public Administration Law, he said, Veasna was not legally required to obtain permission from the commune chief to maintain order during the protest.
Chou Ngy argued that the court had not summoned seven other workers who had been charged with conspiracy to testify. He said they had only been sentenced in absentia and therefore had the right to appeal the verdict.
“There are not enough evidence and witnesses, so please release my client,” he said.
The Supreme Court will deliver its verdict on October 2.