A court in Cambodia’s Tbong Khmum province on Friday sentenced 14 political opposition figures and land-rights activists charged with conspiracy and incitement to one-year prison terms amid a continuing nationwide crackdown by authorities on political dissent in the Southeast Asian country.
Eight of those convicted are now being held in the Tbong Khmum provincial prison and include six members of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), while another six defendants were convicted in absentia after having fled the country to avoid arrest, sources say.
Speaking to RFA after the sentencing, Sam Sokung, a defense lawyer for the convicted CNRP members, slammed the court’s decision as unfair and said he would appeal Friday’s verdict after conferring with his clients.
“Our defense team believes that the sentence of a year’s imprisonment and fine of from 2 million [U.S. $492] to 4 million riels is unacceptable, because our clients didn’t do anything wrong,” Sam Sokung said, adding, “No evidence was presented in court to support the charges of incitement against them.”
The six CNRP activists sentenced on July 2—including Su Yean, Mak Sam An, and Khon Ton—were arrested between November and December last year ahead of the planned return, later canceled, of senior CNRP official Mu Sochua and other party members to Cambodia from exile.
The two others sentenced July 2 were land-rights activists Phon Sophal and Sem Chamnan.
A key source of social tension in Cambodia and other Southeast Asian countries is the widespread practice of land grabs in which authorities seize land from people for development projects or foreign invested enterprises without paying them fair compensation for lost crops, property, and livelihoods.
Srey Seath, the wife of jailed CNRP member Su Yan, called on the court following the sentencing to drop all charges against her husband and release him, saying that he suffers from a chronic illness in prison and needs medical attention and family support.
“I would like to ask the international community and international organizations to help my husband, who has committed no crime,” Srey Seath said. “It is unjust of the court to sentence my husband to a year in prison and to fine him 4 million riels,” she added.
Politically motivated arrests
Soeung Senkaruna, spokesperson for the Cambodian rights group ADHOC, expressed his regret that the Tbong Khum court had sent the eight dissidents and activists to prison for simply exercising their right to freedom of expression as citizens of a democratic country protected by law.
“These arrests by authorities of political activists, social activists, and environmental activists are not cases of law enforcement, but are politically motivated,” Soeung Senkaruna said, adding, “[Cambodia’s] constitution gives citizens the right to engage in political activity and social activism.”
From the beginning of 2020 to June 2021, authorities of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have arrested around 80 political activists, environmental activists, monks, social activists, and members of youth groups, charging them with conspiracy, incitement, and insulting the authorities.
Court officials and other authorities say they make the arrests in accordance with the law, “But international human rights organizations, the United Nations, and UN special rapporteurs believe the arrests are being made in violation of the fundamental rights of our citizens,” Soeung Senkaruna said.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017 and barred its members from taking part in political activities, two months after party leader Kem Sokha’s arrest for his role in an alleged plot 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 CPP to win all 125 parliamentary seats in the country’s 2018 general election.