Tanh Chhin Sothy / AFP via Getty Images

Cambodian court charges opposition lawmakers

Politicians charged with leading an insurrection, face up to 30 years in prison

A Cambodian court charged six opposition activists on Wednesday with leading an insurrection after clashes with security forces prevented their followers from rallying in a public park, deepening a yearlong political crisis after a disputed election.

Lawyers and rights activists said six leading members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) — including five members of parliament — appeared in court to be charged with leading an insurrection movement, incitement to commit a felony and instigation to commit acts of violence. At least three others not present are facing the same charges, they said.

All of the accused were ordered detained pending trial and taken to prison in a heavily guarded convoy as hundreds of supporters stood outside the court demanding their release.

The maximum penalty, if they are convicted on all charges, would be 30 years in prison.

Opposition activists clashed on Tuesday with security forces after attempting to reopen Phnom Penh's Freedom Park, the only place where protests are legally allowed under Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Authorities banned public demonstrations and closed the park in January after a series of street protests.

The government said in a news release that at least 38 neighborhood security personnel were injured in Tuesday's brawling, with 22 in critical condition and three in intensive care.

The guards are civilians used by the authorities to break up protests. They are usually armed with clubs and other homemade weapons, and have been accused repeatedly by human rights groups of using excessive force.

Guards at the site attacked the CNRP supporters with batons and riot police fired tear gas after the activists tried to string up banners on a barbed wire fence surrounding the park.

One of the accused, prominent parliamentarian Mu Sochua, issued a Facebook post confirming the charges.

"This is all unconstitutional as our parliamentary immunity has not yet been lifted," wrote Mu Sochua. "We call on all to stay united and continue our fight for freedom, human rights and liberties."

Opposition party leaders said the guards initiated Tuesday's violence, which came two weeks before the anniversary of a disputed general election last year that led to a bitter political deadlock.

The CNRP claims the election was rigged and that it was robbed of victory. Its lawmakers have boycotted their seats in the National Assembly and are demanding reforms and new elections.

There are fears that the July 28 anniversary of the election will see big protests and possible violence. Hun Sen has been in power for almost three decades, and while Cambodia is formally democratic, his government is authoritarian and known for intimidating opponents.

A small crowd of opposition supporters sought to demonstrate outside the court on Wednesday, but were kept at a distance by security forces.

CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha, speaking before the charges were laid, said the opposition would hold the ruling Cambodian People's Party responsible for any violence should the members of parliament be jailed.

He said the CNRP would seek help from embassies to secure their release and had no wish to organize mass demonstrations.

"We want them released as soon as possible. We don't want things to heat up," he told a news conference.

The government accused the opposition activists of provoking violence to destabilize the country.

"A handful of CNRP leaders had a premeditated plot and instigated their extremist supporters, armed with batons and other deadly objects, brutally attacking security personnel," it said in a news release.

The opposition has staged mass rallies to press for an early election or Hun Sen's resignation. They were joined by factory workers who went on strike last year over the government's refusal to meet demands for higher pay.

Five workers were killed in January when security forces fired live ammunition to disperse striking garment workers. Security guards have consistently broken up protests.

Wire services

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