A Cambodian court on Monday sentenced nine activists, including a lawmaker from the outlawed main opposition party, to prison terms ranging from 12 to 20 months on incitement charges for issuing pro-democracy petitions last year, the daughter of one of the defendants said.
Police arrested the seven opposition activists in October and December 2020 on incitement charges for staging a protest in front of the Chinese Embassy in the capital Phnom Penh last Oct. 23, the 29th anniversary of the singing of the Paris Peace Agreement, marking the official end of the Cambodian-Vietnamese War.
During the demonstration, they tried to submit petitions to the embassies of China, France, and the United States, saying that Cambodia had violated the democratic principles set forth in the Paris Peace Agreement.
Shortly after the arrests, Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly accused lawmaker Ho Van, an opposition official now living in California, of instigating the protests.
Shortly before the verdict was announced at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, one of the detained activists, Lim San, complained about the violation of detainees’ rights, lack of treatment for ill prisoners, and verbal abuse by guards in Prey Sar Prison where she is serving pre-trial detention, said her daughter Phan Sat.
The judge ignored her comments and read the verdicts for former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) lawmaker Ho Vann and activist San Seihak, who is now living exile in Thailand, to 20 months in prison for instigating incitement to cause serious social unrest, Phan Sat said.
Four activists — Hong An, Lim San, Yoy Sreymom, and Ton Nimol — were each sentenced to 18 months in jail for incitement to commit serious social unrest, she said. The three other activists — Pai Ren, Sann Srey Neat, and Sat Pha, were sentenced to 12 months in prison on the same charges.
The judge told the seven activists, who were fined two million riel (U.S. $483) each, that they could file appeals if they were dissatisfied with the verdict.
Phan Sat, who attended the trial, said that the judge’s ruling was unfair. She maintains that her mother was acting legally during the protest and demanded that the court drop the charges and release all the activists.
“I want [her] to appeal because I do not agree with the verdict,” she said. “My mother is innocent. She had done nothing wrong.”
RFA could not reach defense lawyer Sam Sokong for comment.
He previously said that his clients’ protests are a guaranteed form of freedom of expression under Cambodia’s constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The multinational treaty states that everyone has the rights to hold opinions without interference and to freedom of expression.
Civil society groups say that those who participated in the peaceful protest in front of the Chinese embassy were expressing their opinion.
Heng Kimhong, head of the research and advocacy program of the Cambodian Youth Network (CYN), urged the court to reconsider the convictions and sentences and said that unjust detentions would seriously affect human rights.
“Perhaps because they [the defendants] understood that since China was an important signatory to the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement that upheld human rights, democracy, and freedom of expression, they had gathered in front of the Chinese Embassy to demand that [China recognize Hun Sen’s violations of the pact],” he said. “Their protests and demands are not a crime.”
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, two months after the arrest of its leader Kem Sokha for his role in an alleged scheme to topple Hun Sen’s government. The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to win the country’s 2018 general elections.
Former CNRP lawmakers, political opposition activists, their relatives, and their supporters still face backlashes. Since early 2020, more than 80 political, environmental, and social activists, including a popular rapper, have been imprisoned on incitement charges as Hun Sen’s government seeks to silence its critics.
Written by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sum Sok Ry. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.