Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Two Activists Convicted of Incitement in Ratanakiri, Banteay Meanchey

Environmental activist Chhorn Phalla speaks at a press conference in Phnom Penh on July 16, 2020. (CamboJA/Panha Chhorpoan)
Environmental activist Chhorn Phalla speaks at a press conference in Phnom Penh on July 16, 2020. (CamboJA/Panha Chhorpoan)

Provincial courts convicted two well-known activists on Wednesday, environmental activist Chhorn Phalla on defamation, insult and incitement charges and Candlelight official Chao Veasna on incitement charges.

The Ratanakiri Provincial Court sentenced Phalla to one year in prison and imposed a $2,500 fine for charges under Articles 305, 502 and 495 of the criminal code. CamboJA reviewed a court document detailing the verdict and sentencing that did not include additional details on the alleged crimes. Phalla is an outspoken environmental activist who has advocated for the protection of natural resources and monitoring of deforestation. 

Phalla is currently out on bail, according to the human rights group Licadho, which is monitoring the case. Licadho operations director Am Sam Ath said Phalla is active in protecting the environment and it is unfair that he was convicted of these crimes. 

“This [prison] sentence is persecution of our forest rights activist, because his interests are the interests of the community, the interests of the nation, the common interest, not the interests of individuals,” he said. “Those who destroy natural resources are freed and those who protect natural resources are punished.”

Ratanakiri court spokesperson Keo Pisoth said that the court sentenced Phalla but declined to comment further.

Phalla’s wife Kham Salong told CamboJA News she wants the court to give her husband a fair trial, adding that his activism helps society.

“If they have the evidence, please show where he insulted others,” she said. “It is not fair, he just protected the forest and then they accused him.” 

Phalla was imprisoned in September 2021 for convictions in two other cases for allegedly clearing state forest land, but he was released in October 2023 when the convictions were overturned. 

Well-known political opposition official Chao Veasna was also convicted on Wednesday in Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court for incitement to discriminate. Banteay Meanchey’s provincial governor Oum Reatrey, who is also CPP president in this area, sued Veasna for allegedly posting a photo of a spoiled ballot in July, according to Veasna’s lawyer Em Chantha. 

The court sentenced Veasna, Poipet district’s president, to three years in prison, imposed a $1,500 fine and ordered Veasna to pay around $20,000 in compensation to Reatrey, according to Licadho. The court also suspended Veasna’s right to vote and his right to run for office for five years.

On Friday, a CamboJA News reporter called Reatrey, who said he was busy and hung up the phone. 

Veasna, who is a steering committee member of the opposition Candlelight Party, was arrested on election day in July 2023 on incitement charges. An unknown person had reportedly posted a photo of a spoiled ballot in a Telegram group called Sabai, and then-Prime Minister Hun Sen called on people in the group promoting the spoiling of ballots to publicly apologize. Last year at least five people linked to the Telegram group made public apology videos shared by government-aligned media outlet Fresh News. 

Banteay Meanchey court prosecutor spokesperson Samrith Sokhon referred questions to Roeun Lina, spokesperson for the court’s judges, who could not be reached for comment.

Veasna is currently being held in Banteay Meanchey Provincial Prison, according to his daughter Chao Ratanak. She said her father was not a member of the Sabai Telegram group and had not posted the photo, but he was in a Telegram group for Candlelight officials where an unknown person also posted the photo.  

“As he is an opposition official, I think [the charges] are political in nature,” she said. “The evidence is not enough because he did not share the post with the public, but he was charged with incitement. The charges on my father are unjust.”

Chao Veasna arrives at the Supreme Court for an appeal hearing in 2019. (CamboJA/Panha Chhorpoan)

Chantha, Veasna’s attorney, told CamboJA on Thursday that he had already filed an appeal. He added that Veasna’s legal team had asked the court several times to bring in the person who made the post, but that person did not appear in court. 

“As his defense lawyer, I deny the allegations,” he said. “Another person shared the photo and that person was not brought [to court].” 

Teav Vannol, Candlelight Party president, said that the allegations against Veasna are a form of political oppression because Veasna did incite people to spoil ballots.

“This is a restriction on freedom, it was very unfair to him,” he said. “I urge the court to hold a trial based on the evidence, not based on the interference of any political party.”

Veasna was released from Correctional Centre 3, also known as Trapaing Phlong Prison, in February 2022 after serving a five-year sentence for alleged intentional destruction of public property and aggravated circumstances while at a protest. At the time, Veasna was an elected commune chief and member of the former opposition CNRP.

Ruling CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan said the two cases were tried fairly in court. For those claiming there was not enough evidence to convict in these cases, he said: “They have no ability to decide on behalf of the court.”

“The court has a matter of fact and matter of law. If they [the accused] are not guilty, [the court] cannot convict them,” he said. 

Last week, two additional Candlelight Party officials were arrested for allegedly forging documents, resulting in a total of four opposition leaders detained in January 2024. The two officials are accused of using forged documents to register people’s names without their consent to reserve them as candidates for councilor posts. According to an arrest warrant issued by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court obtained by CamboJA News, investigating judge Yi Sokvuoch ordered the arrest of Hak Kosal and Ma Chenda for alleged forgery and use of forged documents in Phnom Penh last November.

(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)