PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A Cambodian court on Friday convicted three military commandos of beating up two opposition lawmakers outside the parliament last year, and sentenced them to one year each in prison. The legislators' lawyer called the punishment too lenient.
Phnom Penh presiding judge Heng Sokna initially sentenced the three men to four years in jail but suspended the sentence to one year. He also ordered them to pay fines totaling $21,500.
The attack occurred in October 2015 when the two opposition lawmakers from the Cambodia National Rescue Party were confronted by a pro-government mob, which was demanding the resignation of the party's deputy leader Kem Sonkha.
Heng Sokna said the attack on the lawmakers by the three members of an elite military unit hurt the nation's reputation and left the victims injured.
The defendants are members of Prime Minister Hun Sen's bodyguard unit, leading critics to suggest the ruling Cambodian People's Party orchestrated the attacks. The attack came as Hun Sen and his party stepped up pressure on the opposition, which had mounted a surprisingly strong challenge in the 2013 general election.
Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the sentence amounted to a cover-up.
"Everybody knows that there was wider involvement of the members of the bodyguard unit beyond these three men, but clearly the government wants to prevent further investigations up the chain of command," Robertson said. "Even the compensation awarded by the court to the two MPs is so paltry that I doubt it even covers medical costs they incurred recovering from their injuries in a Bangkok hospital."
Police stood by during the assault, which inflicted serious injuries on Kung Sophea and Nhay Chamraoen. After the attack, the mob went to Kem Sokha's home and threw stones. On Thursday, police tried to arrest Kem Sokha in connection with defamation cases which the opposition says are politically motivated. He remains in hiding.
During their trial, the bodyguards admitted to the attack, but said they did not realize the men they dragged out of their cars and battered were opposition lawmakers. The bodyguards alleged they had been verbally provoked by the victims, who called the demonstrators "Vietnamese puppets."
Associating the ruling party with Vietnam appeals to old nationalistic grievances over ceding territory to Cambodia's larger eastern neighbor. Hen Sen was installed in power after a Vietnamese invasion ousted Cambodia's fanatical Khmer Rouge regime three decades ago. While Cambodia is formally democratic, Hun Sen's government is authoritarian and known for intimidating opponents.
The lawmakers' lawyer, Sam Sokong, said he plans to consult his clients about an appeal.
"I think by sentencing them to four years each in prison but allowing them to serve just one year is too lenient. If the judge ordered them to serve their four years respectively in prison, as ruled, I think that would be acceptable," he added.