PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Three Cambodian soldiers on trial for brutally assaulting two opposition lawmakers last year belonged to Prime Minister Hun Sen's elite bodyguard unit, a court heard on Thursday (April 28).
The head of the premier's security team previously denied involvement in the attack, which took place amid a clampdown by Mr Hun Sen on a resurgent opposition seeking to end his 31-year monopoly on power.
"It is true," said Chay Sarith, one of the three soldiers on trial, when asked by a lawyer if he belonged to the Prime Minister's bodyguard unit. The two others facing charges, Mao Hoeun and Suth Vanny, were from "the same unit", he added.
The trio has been accused of dragging the two opposition MPs Kong Sakphea and Nhoy Chamreoun from their cars and savagely beating them following a parliamentary session last October.
They were charged on two counts, intentionally committing an act of violence and damaging property, carrying up to five years in prison each.
Chay Sarith, the only defendant to take the stand during the trial's first session on Thursday, testified that he was not instructed to attack the men and did not realise they were politicians.
"If I knew (he was a lawmaker) I would not dare attack him," he told the court, adding that he was simply angry after one of the men cursed at him.
He said he was "so scared" after learning the victim was an MP that he decided to turn himself in, along with the other soldiers, shortly after the attack. He hoped to secure a lenient sentence, he said.
The assault took place following a demonstration by thousands of Hun Sen backers who were calling for a key opposition figure to step down as vice chief of parliament.
Mr Kem Sokha, deputy leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was ousted four days later following a vote by ruling party MPs, in a move that outraged the opposition and rights groups.
Mr Hun Sen has ramped up prosecutions of online critics in recent months and tied up the opposition's leader in a string of legal charges.
He has said the physical assault on MPs was not carried out by his party supporters.