The Siem Reap Provincial Court convicted two rappers, Kea Sokun and Long Putheara, on Tuesday for singing about social issues, such as Cambodia’s economy and territorial claims.
Yin Srang, Siem Reap Provincial Court’s spokesperson, confirmed that Kea Sokun had been sentenced to 18 months in prison and Long Putheara was given a five-month sentence, after they were found guilty of “incitement to commit a felony.” Some part of both their prison sentences were suspended, he said.
“The court sentenced [Kea Sokun] to 18 months in prison but ordered Sokun to serve only one year in prison,” Srang said. “The court sentenced [Long Putheara] to five months in prison but ordered him to serve only three months and 13 days in prison and the remainder sentence suspended.”
Kea Sokun, 22 and Long Puthera,17, were arrested in September after they released songs that voiced criticism of the government and highlighted social issues such as the state of the Cambodian economy.
In the past, the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, which was the plaintiff in this case, has banned songs about labor rights issues or for having sexually explicit lyrics.
Sam Titseyha, who represented Sokun, said his client did nothing wrong and refused to confess to the alleged crime.
“Until now, he has clarified that he did not do anything that opposed the law and the stories that he sang about were true,” Titseyha said.
He added that Long Putheara had apologized for the lyrics in the songs, which is why he was given a more lenient sentence.
“I still think that it is injustice for Sokun because he does not have any intention to incite anyone to commit a felony,” Titseyha added.
The arrests are part of a renewed government crackdown on political activity, which followed the detention of union leader Rong Chhun in late July. The unionist was detained for alleged “incitement” over comments he made about the Vietnamese border dispute, an issue that was in one of the rappers’ songs.
Kea Sokun’s rap song “Dey Khmer,” or Land of Khmer, talks about the spread of Cambodia’s territorial boundaries in the past, with other songs touching on corruption in the country or the killing of “intellectual people.”
“I was born in a land of misery, with a neutral heart, fighting against traitors, taking on a legacy of oppression,” read the lyrics of “Dey Khmer.”
Sokun’s father, Phal Mech, said he could not accept the court’s decision and that he was discussing the prospect of filing an appeal.
“It is very unjust and I am disappointed because the court should not sentence him seriously like this based on his actions,” Mech said.
Mech added that his son was only singing about Cambodia’s territory and the situation in the country, and should not be convicted for that.
Yich Samethy, a lawyer who represented the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts, his client was satisfied with the Siem Reap court’s decision.
“The ministry can accept the court’s decision because the teenager [Long Putheara] had confessed and he recognized his mistake,” Samethy said.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director at rights group Licadho, said that the court’s decision is serious for Kea Sokun and Long Putheara because their rap songs were an expression of their creativity and they should be free to express it.
“I regret that the [court] punished them for incitement,” Sam Ath said. “Punishing them only threatens their spirit.”