PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Six Cambodian opposition politicians were charged Wednesday with leading an insurrection movement after a clash with security forces who prevented their followers from rallying in a public park.
Lawyers and rights activists said six leading members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party — 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.
The maximum penalty if convicted on all charges would be 30 years in prison.
The government said in a statement 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, and have a reputation for brutality. They are usually armed with clubs and other homemade weapons, and have been accused repeatedly by human rights groups of using excessive force.
Authorities banned public demonstrations and closed the park in January after a series of street protests.
"A handful of the CNRP's leaders who had a premeditated plot and led its ultra-supporters, who were armed with batons and other deadly tools, brutally attacked the local security personnel in an attempt to create (a) chaotic situation," the government statement said.
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 Cambodia National Rescue Party 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. Prime Minister 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.
Sam Sok Kong, a lawyer for the accused, said that when his clients were questioned in court they insisted upon their innocence and charged that the government instigated the violence to have an excuse to put them in jail.
"They said that why should they fear being arrested because they know that they did not do anything wrong," Sam Sok Kong said.
On Tuesday, about 200 protesters marched to the park and attached an orange banner that read "Free the Freedom Park" to the surrounding razor wire barricade. As armed police watched from inside the park, several dozen security guards attempted to disperse the rally, witnesses said.
The security forces began beating protesters with batons, but several demonstrators, many of whom were waving the national flag, fought back with their flag poles or batons they had grabbed from the guards, said Om Sam Ath, from the human rights group Licadho. Police fired smoke bombs from inside the park to disperse the protesters, he said, adding that at least four demonstrators were injured.