The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday tried the 17-year-old son of a former CNRP official who was charged with incitement and insulting government leaders in a private Telegram group — a case that has been decried by civil society as a surveillance overstep.
Kak Sovann Chhay, the son of former CNRP official Kak Komphea, was arrested on June 24. Previously, he was arrested last year after entering the former headquarters of the opposition party and in late April was attacked by unknown men who hit him in the head with a brick, fracturing his skull.
At Wednesday’s hearing, Sovann Chhay admitted he had insulted government leaders in a messaging app and posted Hun Sen’s picture marked with the word “betrayal” on Facebook, but his defense lawyer said the teenager has autism, making it hard for him to understand the prosecution’s questioning.
“I was furious, I insulted, and hated leaders,” Sovann Chhay said. “There is no one behind, I did myself,” he said.
The prosecutor and judges asked him several times what his purpose was in insulting the leaders, but the defendant was unable to directly answer the question, saying only: “I did it myself, I was furious, I insulted, and copied pictures [of Hun Sen].”
Sovann Chhay said two users named Panharith and Ra Vili had invited him to join a private Telegram group called “Nineaka Tamchet” or Free Tendency. Someone in the group insulted him, resulting in his sending an insulting voice message in return.
Sovann Chhay’s mother, Prum Chantha, told the court that her son really has autism, and had been struggling amid the isolation during school lockdowns. She said her son was just in Grade 9 when he was arrested.
“He was not very good at learning. When we ask him too many questions he gets turned around,” she said.
Chantha said that the trial seemed unfair because those in the Telegram group who insulted her son weren’t asked to testify. “The court should bring the person who insulted my son to answer questions at the court,”
Deputy prosecutor Kim Hongsan, requested the panel judges to convict the teen on the charges, noting that the defendant “had confessed his crimes,” and was able to answer questions clearly enough to suggest his autism hadn’t impacted his judgement.
“There is enough evidence to show the defendant committed the crimes, please judges decide according to the law,” he said.
Defense lawyer, Sam Sokong, called on the court to drop all charges against the client saying he was innocent of the charges and that due to his autism he couldn’t clearly understand the questions put to him, resulting in his seemingly incriminating responses.
“We have not seen enough evidence to prove the incitement charges because there is no mastermind or anyone who has received the idea to commit any crime,” he said.
“My client has no intention to insult leaders, but he insulted that person in the group,” Sokong said, adding that his client made the insult in response to offensive comments directed to him.
“He was wrong in his answers [to the court] due to his autism disease,” he said.
Civil society groups have decried the act of secret surveillance, saying its part of the ruling CPP’s effort to tighten control over political discourse in Cambodia, even that happening in private communications.
On September 2, United Nation human rights experts in Geneva called on Cambodia to release Sovann Chhay.
“Children with disabilities accused of breaking the law should be treated in line with the best interests of the child, and every effort should be made to keep them out of jail,” the exports said.
“This is especially true in a case such as this of free and peaceful expression.”
Chak Sopheap, executive director at rights group CCHR, called for the immediate and unconditional release of Sovann Chhay, along with all the prisoners of conscience.
“Sadly, Chhay’s case is the latest illustration of the witch hunt that the government has relentlessly led against opposition members and sympathizers as well as their relatives in the past years, and that appears to know no limits,” she said.
Sopheap said that his case shows the extreme lengths to which the government is willing to go to suppress any form of opposition and critics to tighten its grip on power, even if it means arresting and trying disabled children in complete disregard for their most fair trial rights.
She noted that Sovann Chhay was arrested and charged for criticizing the government via private communications, violating his fundamental rights to privacy and freedom of expression, both protected under international and domestic law.
Chantha told CamboJA after the trial that she did not believe the court would acquit her son.
“During the trial, they have leading questions to pressure my son, though he is on the autism spectrum,” she said.
“If the court was independent, the poor people would not suffer until now because they can turn from white to black,” Chantha said.
Presiding judge Uong Vuthea, said that the verdict would be announced on October 13.