Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Rong Chhun’s lawyer appeals conviction and sentencing of unionist

A man drives a motorcycle past the Appeal Court of Phnom Penh, August 26, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
A man drives a motorcycle past the Appeal Court of Phnom Penh, August 26, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

The lawyer for union leader Rong Chhun and two other activists filed an appeal on Wednesday against Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s conviction on incitement charges. In a separate case, the lawyer for jailed activists with the environmental NGO Mother Nature filed an appeal to the Supreme Court the same day the Appeal Court denied them bail.

“We appealed to the Appeal Court through the Municipal Court on Wednesday afternoon,” Sam Sokong, the lawyer for Chhun and activists Sar Kanika and Ton Nimol, told CamboJA on Thursday. “We want the Appeal Court to rescind the Municipal Court’s decision and we request the Appeal Court to drop the charge, meaning they acquit them.”

He said that the municipal court’s decision did not provide justice for his clients. Sokong said that he met with his clients at the prison on August 23 and they approved the appeal.

On August 18, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced union leader Chhun to two years in prison on incitement charges for comments he made suggesting that a community along the Vietnam border had lost land during the border’s demarcation. Activists Kanika and Nimol were both sentenced to 20 months in prison on charges of incitement to cause social disorder for having publicly called for the imprisoned unionist’s release.

Sokong is also the defense attorney in the case of Mother Nature activists Sun Ratha, Yim Leanghy, and Ly Chandaravuth, who are charged with plotting and insulting the king. He said that he appealed to the Supreme Court after the Appeal Court denied them bail on August 16, 2021.

Ratha and Leanghy, as well as Mother Nature co-founder and Spanish national Alejandro Gonzalez-Davidson, were charged with plotting and insulting the king. Chandaravuth was charged only with plotting. The trio has been held in pre-trial detention since June 16, while Gonzalez-Davidson was charged in absentia.

Ny Sokha, president of rights group Adhoc, said that defendants have the right to appeal and the case against Chhun appeared weak.

“There were many comments from national and international NGOs and people understand that Rong Chhun did not commit what the court’s decision [said],” said Sokha.

He added that all people have the right to freely comment and express opinions on the border issue and said it was clear Chhun did nothing to incite chaos.

Regarding the case of Mother Nature’s activists, he said it was regretful they weren’t released on bail.

“We always urged the court to release defendants on bail,” he said, noting that the group appeared to have done nothing illegal and certainly posed no threat.

“Their activities are not illegal because they just comment and are concerned about environmental issues and the impact on natural resources,” he said. “I think it is not a mistake but they join the society to protect the natural resource and defend the justice in the society.”

He added that the government should improve human rights in Cambodia and release jailed activists before the commune election, particularly to improve its standing in the international arena and avoid further sanctions.

“I think that the government is using the court system to put pressure on the freedom of expression of environmental and human rights activists, as well as the border’s activists,” said Sokha.

Am Sam Ath, deputy director of rights group Licadho, noted that many national and international organizations, as well as UN human right experts, criticized the Rong Chhun case.

“Rong Chhun and two activists just commented and gathered peacefully, it should not be a crime and they should not have been sentenced like this,” he said. “We hope that the Appeal Court will review and consider their case. When the rehearing [takes place] I hope that they will have freedom.”

Regarding the bail case, he said that civil society organizations including Licadho always urge that peaceful activists be released on bail.

“We still urge the court to release them because they just work to protect the environment and express their comments,” said Sam Ath.

Chin Malin, spokesman of the Justice Ministry, said that while defense lawyers have every right to appeal, it’s necessary for them to provide strong exculpatory evidence and issuing critical statements wasn’t sufficient.

“Issuing the statement to criticize [the government] without basic [evidence], it is not the way to protect based on the law and it is not effective [in swaying] the court’s decision,” said Malin.