Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Resounding Call To Release Human Rights Defender Koet Saray Charged For Incitement in Preah Vihear

Koet Saray, president of Khmer Student Intelligent League Association, was charged for inciting a community involved in a land dispute in Preah Vihear. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
Koet Saray, president of Khmer Student Intelligent League Association, was charged for inciting a community involved in a land dispute in Preah Vihear. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

About 50 civil society groups and unions called for the release of human rights activist Koet Saray, president of Khmer Student Intelligent League Association (KSILA), who has been placed in pre-trial detention. 

Saray was arrested on April 5 and charged for incitement after meeting Srayong commune residents who were embroiled in a long-disputed land in Kulen district. In March, 25 out of 36 people who were arrested were charged for allegedly “clearing and occupying forest land”.

His detention amid several other persecution of activists and politicians concerned NGOs which view them as stifling political rights and freedom of expression. These include the arrest of opposition Candlelight Party members who were detained on forgery charges, relating to the alleged use of people’s names as reserve candidates for the upcoming council election in the capital, province and district. 

According to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Sunday, Saray’s incitement charge was in relation to disrupting public order.

The court statement mentioned that Saray and an accomplice attempted to entice residents to encroach on the land and incite them to protest against the authorities, and escape into the forest. The duo are alleged to have asked the villagers to present a “picture of fear and misery” despite help and cooperation offered by the Preah Vihear provincial authorities. It seems that Saray and his accomplice also “refused to accept the authorities’ help”.

Saray also allegedly took four young human rights activists to interview the villagers, who had fled into the forest, and record their activities. The court alleged that Saray made public claims, which it considered “false information” to “provoke anger” and “incite the villagers to act against the government”. 

In addition, “foreign media were sent pictures by Saray and his accomplice to allegedly confuse people at home and abroad regarding the leadership of the government and unite in the fight against the government”.

More important to find out what happened

KSILA’s secretary-general Thorn Sakada viewed Saray’s arrest as a threat to young people who work on human rights and environmental issues.

“I see his arrest as curtailing people’s power, those who want to serve [public] interests,” he said.

“He [Saray] spoke about what happened on the ground,” Sakada said, adding that he had noticed a media report on the Preah Vihear land dispute prior to Saray’s activity there.

Cambodian Youth Network president Heng Kimhong echoed Sakada in urging the court to drop the charge against Saray.

“We’re very concerned that the rights and freedom of expression of civil society groups are shrinking, especially human rights in Cambodia,” he said.

A 34-year-old villager, who is seeking refuge in the forest, told CamboJA News that Saray and some young people met the villagers on March 18 to get a clearer picture of the situation and to record their daily activities in the forest.

“He came with a good intention to help villagers and provide food. He did not incite the villagers,” said the woman, who declined to be named as she feared being arrested. She called for the release of Saray and other villagers, who have been detained in prison.

For Saray, this is not his first legal case. In October 2021, he was charged for incitement and sentenced to 20 months in jail with 10 others for participating in a peaceful protest in support of then-jailed unionist Rong Chhun.

NGO rights group Licadho operation Am Sam Ath said Saray’s latest charge will impact the rights to freedom of expression as national and international groups condemned the government, urging it to restore political space.

“I think that it’s his right to freedom of expression […] with regards to the land dispute, Saray was disseminating information of what he saw on the ground,” he said. “It is not wrong to share information but the important thing is to find out whether it really happened or not.”

Political persecutions against opposition activists 

Beginning January 2023 until now, 17 Candlelight Party members have been detained in the prison, according to party secretary-general Ly Sothearayuth.

He urged the court to release the party officials, political activists and social activists while asking the government to not curtail political freedom and allow for a free democratic environment before the capital, provincial and district council elections on May 26.

This is to show that Cambodia is “practicing, restoring and strengthening democracy and freedom of expression”, Sothearayuth told CamboJA News.

Ruling CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan said Cambodians have the right to express their opinion as stipulated in the constitution but they do not have the right to infringe upon the rights of others.

“The opposition group think they will not win [in the upcoming election], so they provoke an anarchy [public disorder]. This cannot be tolerated by the authorities, so legal action must be taken,” he told CamboJA News. “There are one or two [opposition] parties that disturbed public order.”

He said the opposition’s alleged attempt to disrupt public order is so that the authority would take legal action against them and use this event to attack the government, and urge foreigners to pressure Cambodia.

Political analyst Em Sovannara said the government should consider restoring democracy and human rights to gain popularity in the next election.

He opined that the information shared by Saray and his interview with the media was in accordance with his right to freedom of expression as stipulated by the constitution.

“I think Cambodians are victims. The government will [face] challenges in exporting goods to Western markets if they [fail to] respond to international concerns,” Sovannara said. 

Government spokesperson Pen Bona declined to comment while Nop Vuthy, Preah Vihear provincial spokesperson, could not be reached for comment.