A court in Cambodia on Wednesday delivered suspended five-year sentences to four human rights activists and an official with the country’s National Election Committee (NEC) after convicting them of paying to silence a woman who allegedly had an affair with opposition chief Kem Sokha.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Duch Sok Sarin announced the decision against Adhoc staffers Nay Vanda, Ny Sokha, Yi Soksan, and Lim Mony, and NEC deputy secretary-general Ny Chakrya, saying their jail term commenced on the day of their arrest in April 2016 and ended when they were released from pretrial detention on bail in June last year, and that “the rest of their sentence is suspended.”
The five defendants were taken into custody in 2016 after being questioned by the country’s Anti-Corruption Unit amid accusations they had bribed Khom Chandaraty to deny that she had an affair with Kem Sokha, president of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
RFA’s Khmer Service was unable to reach the court’s spokesman for comment on the case, which was decided in a one-day trial on Sept. 18.
Adhoc spokesman Soeng Sen Karuna told RFA he believed the verdict to be “unjust” and said the rights group will speak with the five defendants to determine whether they want to appeal.
“The court didn’t consider the defendants’ call to drop the case,” he said, adding, “We are very upset with our court system.”
Adhoc issued a joint statement on Wednesday along with 74 community organizations and unions, and 19 other rights groups, condemning the verdict in the trial during which Khom Chandaraty and four other witnesses were absent, and only two witness statements were read aloud—preventing cross-examination by the defense.
“Today’s conviction is therefore clear retribution for their legitimate human rights work,” the statement said.
“We call on the authorities to immediately and unconditionally overturn these convictions, and to allow the four Adhoc staff members and NEC official to conduct their legitimate work to serve the Cambodian people unhindered, without threat or punishment.”
The statement called for the five to be “afforded adequate remedy” for the 427 days they spent in pre-trial detention and urged the government to “ensure an enabling environment for the legitimate work of human rights defenders and civil society, in which fundamental freedoms can be fully enjoyed.”
International rights groups blasted Wednesday’s decision as an example of Cambodia’s government using the courts to crack down on the work of civil society groups.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called in a statement on Wednesday for Cambodian authorities to “immediately quash the politically motivated convictions” of the five, with the group’s Asia director Brad Adams saying the sentences show that Prime Minister Hun Sen “intends to persecute human rights defenders even after cementing his power through July’s sham election.”
Kem Sokha was arrested in September last year on treason charges widely seen as politically motivated, and the Supreme Court dissolved his CNRP two months later for its part in an alleged plot to topple the government, banning its candidates from taking part in a July 29 general election that Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) steamrolled without any viable opponent.
The political crackdown drew condemnation from Western governments who lamented Cambodia’s reversals on democracy, dismissed July’s ballot as unfree and unfair, and had demanded Kem Sokha’s release and a reinstatement of the CNRP.
Hun Sen, who secured another five-year term to add to his 33 years in office after official election results were announced on Aug. 15, has made a practice of heavy-handed crackdowns on his critics, followed by a relaxation of restrictions after facing international condemnation.
Kem Sokha and several high-profile activists have been freed from detention in recent weeks.
But Adams said that Wednesday’s sentencing made it “clear Hun Sen’s pardon of political prisoners after the election was just a public relations effort to regain international legitimacy.”
“Foreign governments and donors should react strongly to these convictions or they can expect more and more cases,” he said.
“The recent pardons followed international pressure, so now is the time to turn up the heat so that Hun Sen understands there will be significant costs if he doesn’t reverse course.”
London-based Amnesty International’s senior director of Global Operations Minar Pimple said in a statement that Wednesday’s verdict and sentencing were a “political outcome to a political case,” adding that they “must immediately and unconditionally be repealed.”
“This is an obvious attempt to punish the activists for their peaceful human rights work, and deter them and others,” he said.
“This case will cast a long shadow on Cambodia’s peaceful human rights activists, who have come under increasing assault by the authorities. This crackdown must end immediately.”
Amnesty noted that while Cambodia has released 20 people detained for rights work or expressing views critical of the government since the July election, most still have pending criminal charges or sentences “that could be resumed at any time.”
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) chairperson Charles Santiago, a Malaysian member of parliament, called the sentences handed to the five defendants on Wednesday “outrageous” and “a clear message that any form of dissent—no matter how peaceful—is unacceptable.”
“Today’s verdicts will have a chilling effect on civil society as a whole—these charges were politically motivated from the start and the convictions should be quashed immediately,” he said in a statement.
“This also clearly shows that, despite the small concessions offered by Hun Sen in recent weeks, it is very much business as usual when it comes to human rights in Cambodia. The international community must continue to push for fundamental change, including the dropping of all charges against peaceful activists and government opponents.”
Also on Wednesday, Cambodia’s Supreme Court concluded hearings in Ny Chakrya’s appeal of his conviction on charges of “defamation, malicious denunciation, and for comments intended to unlawfully coerce judicial authorities,” issued by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Sept. 22, 2016.
The 2016 conviction, under Articles 305, 311, and 522 of Cambodia’s Criminal Code, followed a complaint by an investigating judge and a deputy prosecutor at the Siem Reap Provincial Court over comments Ny Chakrya allegedly made at two May 2015 press conferences for Adhoc—where he was a staffer at the time—calling for an investigation into legal irregularities related to a land dispute.
Ny Chakrya’s lawyer Sam Sokong told RFA that he has requested that the Supreme Court judges drop his client’s case.
“I’ve asked the judge to drop all charges against him so he can have the full freedom necessary to fulfill his job as a deputy secretary-general for the NEC,” he said.
In a statement, rights group Licadho noted that the prosecution was absent from the proceedings on Wednesday, denying Ny Chakrya the right to confront his accusers—as was the case at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court trial in 2016.
“Ny Chakrya’s right to prepare and conduct his defence for the initial court hearing and at the appeal court was also undermined as he was held in pre-trial detention at the time on charges of acting as an accomplice to bribery in a separate politically motivated case,” the group added.
The verdict in Ny Chakrya’s appeal trial is expected on Oct. 1.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.