A court in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh sentenced seven opposition activists to 18 months in prison Thursday for “incitement” after they used social media to criticize the government for its handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court delivered the sentences to the members of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), who included one Buddhist monk, in absentia because all seven of them are living abroad. Judge Ouk Reth Kunthea ordered authorities to arrest the activists upon their return to Cambodia.
Ron Chanthy, one of the convicted activists who currently lives in Thailand, refused to accept what he called an “unjust verdict,” saying the court and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had “worked together” to prevent him from running in Cambodia’s commune elections to be held next year and general elections in 2023.
He said that in admonishing the government for its response to the pandemic, he was simply exercising his freedom of speech and not inciting anyone to act against the state.
“I will continue to speak out against the government,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service, adding that he believes it is “useless to appeal” the verdict.
“There is no justice for me because the court is being influenced by Hun Sen.”
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017 over an alleged plot to overthrow the government. The move came amid a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the country’s political opposition, independent media, and NGOs that paved the way for his CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 elections.
The activists had established a Facebook page called “CNRP Fighters” through which they slammed policies they say led to Cambodia’s nearly 2,000 deaths and 97,000 infections from COVID-19 since the coronavirus was first detected in the country in early 2020, including 400 deaths and 14,500 cases in the last month alone.
Thursday’s verdicts followed an Aug. 26 trial in absentia for the activists and monk, who is currently living in Canada, in which the only person present was a representative of the plaintiff, who is a police officer.
Another of the convicted activists, Mao Vibol, said he believes Cambodia’s courts are protecting Hun Sen’s power by unfairly prosecuting his political opponents.
“What we have been doing is right—that is why the public follows us [on Facebook],” he said. “Our work has rightfully caused Hun Sen concern.”
Jailed activists questioned
Also on Thursday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigative Judge Sin Sovanroth questioned Kong Mas and Khat Bunpheng—two CNRP activists who have been jailed for eight months after being convicted of “conspiracy.”
The two were arrested in December 2020 for working to facilitate CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua’s return to Cambodia from self-imposed exile to avoid what she says are a string of politically motivated charges and convictions. In January, Mu Sochua and fellow party leaders and activists were prevented from boarding a Singapore Airlines flight to Phnom Penh from Los Angeles because they had been refused visas to enter Cambodia.
Mu Sochua and eight other CNRP leaders—including acting CNRP President Sam Rainsy—were sentenced in absentia in March to between 20 and 25 years in jail. The nine, who were prohibited from returning to Cambodia to defend themselves in the trial, were also banned from voting or running as candidates in future elections.
Speaking to RFA, Am Sam Ath of Cambodian rights group Licadho said that Thursday’s questioning of Kong Mas and Khat Bunpheng did not comply with court procedures, adding that the pair’s convictions were “politically motivated” and should be resolved through dialogue.
“Without political negotiation, the activists will continue to stay in prison,” he said.
“The arrests, charges and detentions are politically motivated and have no basis in law.”
Attempts by RFA to reach court spokesman and prosecutor Plang Sophal for comment went unanswered Thursday.