Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Phnom Penh court sentences 16-year-old boy with autism to eight months

Kak Sovann Chhay's mother Prum Chantha waves to her son as he is taken away in a prison van in front of the Municipal Court of Phnom Penh after his hearing, September 29, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Kak Sovann Chhay's mother Prum Chantha waves to her son as he is taken away in a prison van in front of the Municipal Court of Phnom Penh after his hearing, September 29, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

The 16-year-old son of a member of the outlawed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been convicted of incitement and insulting public officials in a private Telegram group and through content shared on Facebook.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday sentenced Kak Sovann Chhay to eight months in prison. The teenager, who has autism spectrum disorder, will serve a total of four and a half months of the sentence in prison, with the remaining months suspended, according to his mother. He will be released on Monday November 8 at the end of his sentence.

The court also placed Sovann Chhay under court supervision for the next two years, during which he will be required to report to the prosecutor if he changes his address or wishes to travel abroad, and will be required to appear before the court whenever summoned.

Sovann Chhay, the son of former CNRP official Kak Komphea, was arrested on June 24. He had previously been 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.

Komphea is a former member of the Phnom Penh city council for the CNRP and one of more than 130 defendants charged with plotting and incitement related to the failed 2019 return of exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party has labeled Rainsy’s much-heralded attempt as a move to topple the government.

Sovan Chhay’s mother, Prum Chanta, expressed disappointment that the court had found her son guilty.

“It is very unjust that the court convicted a teenager,” she said. She maintains that her son has not incited anyone to commit any crimes.

“If the boy has committed wrongdoing, he should be educated, so it is unjust to sentence him to several months in prison,” Chantha said. She added that she is discussing with her lawyer whether to appeal the sentence.

During the September hearing, Sovann Chhay admitted that he had insulted government leaders in a messaging app and posted Prime Minister Hun Sen’s picture marked with the word “betrayal” on Facebook. His defense lawyer argued that 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 me, I did it myself.” Defense lawyer Sam Sokong could not be reached for comment.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director at human rights group Licadho, decried the conviction of a 16-year-old with autism, noting that there was no solid evidence to support an incitement charge.

“The boy was just 16 years old, how can he have incited [somebody] to cause chaos? So, this conviction is very unjust for him,” he said.

“It has impacted the freedom of a child who the court has placed under supervisory conditions,” Sam Ath said.

He told CamboJA that believed that the conviction was politically motivated due to the fact that the defendant is the son of imprisoned former CNRP member Kam Komphea.  Kamphea’s wife is an active participant in the Friday Women movement demanding the release of imprisoned opposition members and activists.

Neither Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge Uong Vuthea, nor chief of secretariat Y Rin could be reached for comment.

Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said that he encouraged the defendant and his family to appeal to a higher court if they are not satisfied with the verdict. “If the party and defendant disagree with the decision, they can appeal to the Court of Appeal,” he said.