Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Phnom Penh Court Sentences Candlelight Leader Thach Setha to Three Years Jail  for Incitement

Candlelight Party Vice President Thach Setha speaks at the party’s office in Phnom Penh on April 4, 2022, before he was arrested. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
Candlelight Party Vice President Thach Setha speaks at the party’s office in Phnom Penh on April 4, 2022, before he was arrested. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

Candlelight Party leader Thach Setha was found guilty of incitement by Phnom Penh Municipality Court judge Chhun Davy on Wednesday. Setha was sentenced to three years imprisonment and a fine of four million riel for making “critical comments” over the January 7 anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime.

The 70-year-old, who is facing jail term for the second time, was charged with incitement under Articles 494, 495 and 496 of the Criminal Code.

Last month, the Phnom Penh Municipality court sentenced Setha to 18 months jail for allegedly issuing bad checks. Altogether, his jail term has increased to four years and six months.

According to the latest charge, Setha is alleged to have made a few statements, including an allegation over the Vietnamese army invasion of Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime on January 7, followed by the establishment of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. 

His statements, made in South Korea when he met Cambodian workers, were captured on video, which was posted on YouTube on January 13, this year. This was submitted to the court by the police before the trial.

Dressed in an orange uniform and standing alone in the courtroom, Setha called on the international community to restore democracy and human rights in Cambodia.

“We’re struggling for democracy, [I ask] all of you to help democracy,” Setha said, addressing representatives from the European Union, German Embassy and United Nations after the verdict was handed down. “See with your eyes and hear with your ears.”

None of the embassies responded to questions at the courthouse. In a reply via email, the US Embassy spokesperson said the authorities have been urged to uphold international obligations, protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, which are also enshrined in Cambodia’s constitution.

“The US remains committed to the Cambodian people and their aspirations for a more prosperous, democratic and independent country, where all voices are heard and respected,” the spokesperson said.

Meanwhile, defense lawyer Son Chhum Chuon expressed disappointment with the court’s ruling on his client, who was practicing his freedom of expression.

“[We] can’t accept the conviction. We will discuss the appeal with the client,” he said.

“There is not enough evidence because [he is] not [the] only person who raised [January 7 victory] but others [did] as well. Historical documents were also written, so what he mentioned is based on historical documents,” Chhum Chuon said.

He noted that national and international laws guaranteed people’s rights and freedom of expression.

Setha’s wife, Sok Borany, urged the court to release her husband, claiming that he is innocent as he was speaking up in the interests of Cambodians and the nation.

“I am very upset that the court has decided to sentence my husband. This is not justice. He did it for the nation and the result is this [imprisonment] for his sacrifice. He spoke the truth but they charged him for incitement,” Borany said. 

Thach Setha’s wife Sok Borany talks to journalists outside Phnom Penh Municipality court which sentenced her husband to three years imprisonment, October 18, 2023. (CamboJA/Khuon Narim)

Human rights NGO Licadho operation director Am Sam Ath believed that the conviction against Setha is a restriction on his rights to engage in politics.

“I think that in [light of] Setha’s case, there will be high criticism over the freedom of expression and right to politics,” he said.

Sam Ath remarked that politicians make rhetoric speech as they need to attract supporters. “But if every speech to attract supporters is seen as incitement, it would affect the right or freedom in doing politics,” he added.

He noticed that although the conviction is a discretion of the court, it cannot ignore the criticism against that case because the public have considered it a political issue rather than law enforcement. 

Candlelight spokesperson Kimsour Phearith, sharing a similar view, mentioned that the conviction will result in the constriction in the right of politics.

“It is a discretion of the court and it is difficult to speak in this society. It is difficult for us to accept that a critic should not be punished like this [three years imprisonment],” he said.

When contacted, Justice Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin replied that the ministry has no comment as the court’s decision is based on facts and evidence. “If they do not agree with this decision, [they] have the right to file the case in the Court of Appeal,” he said.