Seven former party members and activists of the outlawed opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) have been sentenced to 18 months in prison on incitement charges over social media posts criticizing the government leadership over deaths caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted seven former CNRP party members and activists in absentia on Thursday based on Facebook posts published over the course of 2020. All the defendants fled Cambodia last year for fear of arrest.
Judge Ouk Rethkunthea ordered the arrest of the suspects, who include Nou Sothea, 51, Rin Roth, 33, Run Chanthy, 36, Mao Vibol, 38, Sim Sophea, 34, Pech Sambo, 55, and Neang Sokhon. The suspects were also ordered to pay a fine of $500 each.
“[All] defendants can file an opposition review if they are not satisfied with the verdict in absentia,” Rethkunthea said.
Civil society groups have decried the sentencing of people for publicly sharing their opinions, especially former opposition party members who use their right to free expression for constructive criticism.
Ny Chakrya, president of rights group Adhoc, said that a genuinely democratic country should never convict anyone for exercising their freedom of expression.
“We are saddened that the government and courts continue to penalize those who have used their rights and exercised opinions,” he said.
Chakrya said that Cambodia would be negatively impacted if it continued to crack down on rights and freedoms, including potential pressure from the international community to reverse the deterioration of human rights and democracy.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) executive director Chak Sopheap said the conviction of the seven former CNRP members for expressing their concerns over COVID-19 on social media only confirmed the government’s systemic silencing of critical voices.
“[The] Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s decision is yet another illustration, among many others, of the government’s intolerance to criticism and how it continues to use the judiciary to stifle critics,” she said.
“Without respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, there can be no democracy.”
She added that every citizen should be able to express their views and concerns on any topic without fear of repercussions.
Chin Malin, vice president of the Cambodian Human Rights Committee, maintained that the Cambodian government was following democratic principles saying that the civil society groups’ objections did not reflect the facts.
“It is usual for a small society group to always make baseless accusations and have a political agenda,” he said.