A group of 14 activists who were arrested last year for arranging protests in support of the jailed unionist Rong Chhun were convicted Tuesday of charges of incitement.
Though the Phnom Penh Municipal Court moved to acquit Hong Lim, a former member of parliament in the Australian state of Victoria, who lives in Australia, Judge Tith Sothy Borachat found the rest of the defendants guilty and handed them fines and prison sentences ranging between 20 months and two years.
The group was arrested in August and September 2020. With the exception of five former CNRP lawmakers living in exile abroad, the involved activists have been imprisoned since their arrests last year.
Judge Tith Sothy Borachat on Tuesday sentenced 10 of the defendants to 20 months imprisonment and ordered them to pay fines of $500. However, with more than a year spent in prison already, the defendants will see either five or six months of their sentence suspended.
This group includes the seven youth activists Hun Vannak, Chhoeun Daravy, Eng Malai, Koeut Saray and Tha Lavy, who are associated with the group Khmer Thavrak, as well as Mean Prummony and Moung Sopheak, who are members of the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association.
Former CNRP officials Kong Sam An, Chum Puthy and Chhour Peng also received the same sentence and will have the last months of their prison terms suspended.
The remaining five defendants are exiled former CNRP lawmakers who were accused of orchestrating the demonstrations in support of Rong Chhun and were tried in absentia. Judge Borachat convicted officials Ho Vann, Ou Chanrith, Kong Saphea, and Seng Bunrong and sentenced them to a steeper penalty of two years in prison and a fine of $1,000.
The court moved to acquit the final defendant, former parliamentarian Hong Lim, who now lives in Australia.
Borachat said all those convicted and residing in Cambodia will be under court supervision for the next two years and are required to report to the prosecutor if they change their address, job or want to go abroad. They are also forbidden from contacting their co-defendants.
Some of the 10 defendants who presented themselves to the court were overjoyed at the prospect of regaining their freedom from prison. However, others were unsatisfied to be declared guilty for what they said was an act of free expression.
“There is still no justice,” said youth activist Chhoeun Daravy after leaving the courtroom.
Sam Chamroeun, the defense lawyer of the seven youth activists, also expressed disappointment with the guilty verdict.
“We can’t accept this sentence because they have claimed they were innocent,” he said. The activists have yet to be freed, but those serving 14-month sentences are expected to be released in the coming weeks.
Yi Soksan, a senior investigator with the rights group Adhoc who attended the court proceedings, condemned the conviction of the youth activists as unjust.
“For my thinking, they had just exercised their opinions,” Soksan said, commending the work of the youth groups regarding their activism around natural resource protection.
So Sambath, 48, the mother of defendant Moung Sopheak, maintains her son did not commit incitement.
“It is unreasonable because my son has just exercised his rights,” Sambath said, adding that she still supports her son’s activism. “I think this conviction will break the spirit of people so they won’t dare to join [together] for the public interest.”