Union leader Rong Chhun was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison on incitement charges on Wednesday for comments he made suggesting that a community along the Vietnam border had lost land during the frontier’s demarcation. Activists Sar Kanika and Ton 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.
When municipal court judge Le Sokha announced the verdict, all three defendants cried out that the sentence was unjust, with Chhun saying that the court’s decision was ordered by the government.
“The court’s decision is under political influence,” he said. “The court is a pawn of the government.” Chhun asked that unspecified embassy officials be informed about the verdict.
All three defendants will also be fined 2 million riel [roughly 490USD] each and ordered to pay 400 million riel [roughly 98,000USD] in compensation to the Cambodian Border Affairs Committee, the body responsible for overseeing the demarcation of the nation’s borders.
Chhun, who is president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions and a member of the Cambodian Watchdog Council, was arrested on July 31 last year and has been held in pre-trial detention ever since.
Chhun’s arrest came after he wrote a Facebook post and made other comments on Radio Free Asia (RFA) in which he claimed that farmers in the border province of Tbong Khmum had lost land during the demarcation of the boundary with Vietnam. Chhun had travelled to the border on July 20 to look into the allegations and published a statement the next day on Facebook. Kanika and Nimol were both arrested in August after having taken part in peaceful demonstrations calling for the union leader’s release.
Standing in front of the court after the verdict, Kanika’s mother, 58-year-old Choeng Sophal, said that her daughter had not committed any crime, and that she had just joined in a protest calling for Rong Chhun’s freedom.
“It is very unjust for my daughter because she is innocent,” Sophal said. “The court should drop the charge because my daughter has not killed anyone.”
Defense lawyer Sam Sokong said that he was disappointed with the court’s decision to sentence Chhun to the maximum prison term allowed under the law, saying he had never seen a decision like this in the past.
“After the verdict was announced, I met with my clients, especially teacher Rong Chhun, and he said he will absolutely appeal against this decision,” Sokong said. “If the court sentenced him to only one year in jail, he would still appeal, because they have done nothing wrong, and they work for society.”
Chhit Boravuth, a lawyer on the Cambodian Border Affairs Committee, declined to comment on Wednesday. But committee vice chairwoman Koy Pisey denied that the court had been influenced in any way, and accused Chhun of misleading the public.
“Whatever he did, it is not true and it is not correct,” Pisey said. She added that Cambodia had not lost land to Vietnam as Chhun had described.
“In that area, it has not been lost like what he commented,” she said.
Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association president Ouk Chhayavy, who has been monitoring the case closely, said that she doubted the court’s independence.
“I think that if the court were independent, all of them would be found not guilty,” she said. “This is a political issue, it is very unjust for teacher Rong Chhun.”
Chhayavy said that the court’s decision will make people afraid to join together in trying to improve society, as those who loved and tried to help society are sentenced to prison.
“On behalf of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association, I condemn the judicial system in Cambodia that does not have justice and makes people lose confidence in it,” she said. “I will continue to struggle for Rong Chhun’s release forever, even if my life will be lost.”
Am Sam Ath, the deputy director of human rights group Licadho, said that he was saddened by the court’s decision.
“I regret the municipal court’s decision because this decision seems [to include] aggravating circumstances for them,” he said. “Because as we saw that Rong Chhun was sentenced to two years in jail, no mitigating circumstances were taken into account.”
Sam Ath said that the 400 million riel the defendants were demanded to pay in compensation to the Cambodian Border Affairs Committee was also very serious.
“I think that based on their living standards, they will not have the ability to pay,” he said.
He said that he finds it hard to believe that the three people were sentenced like this after both national and international organisations repeatedly urged the court to drop the charges against them.
“In the past, their detentions were related to political issues rather than law enforcement,” he said.
Ny Sokha, president of human rights group Adhoc, questioned how Chhun’s activities had caused damage to society.
“I think that their activities are beneficial for society, they do not damage society,” he said. He said the court’s verdict will likely have a harsh impact on the spirits of other Cambodians hoping to protect the nation’s territory and sovereignty.
Sokha added that political factors also played a part in this case, saying that border issues were a sensitive issue between Cambodia and Vietnam.
Officials from several embassies including the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, Sweden and UNOHCHR as well as civil society representatives were present at the hearing.
In a Facebook post responding to the verdict, US ambassador W. Patrick Murphy said that Rong Chhun’s conviction raises “serious questions about freedom of speech protected in Cambodia’s constitution and essential to the functioning of a democracy”.
“The judicial system should not be abused to silence peaceful activists,” he wrote.
British ambassador Tina Redshaw echoed his worry, posting on Twitter that she was “seriously concerned and disappointed to hear [the] sentencing of Rong Chhun”.
“Freedom of expression is protected in Cambodia’s constitution and the judiciary shouldn’t be used to curtail it,” she wrote. “Strong governments are open to hearing and engaging with a range of views from all of society.”