PHNOM Penh Municipal Court on Friday formally charged opposition leader Sam Rainsy with falsifying public documents and spreading disinformation, two weeks after government lawyers filed complaints against the embattled Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) president.
Sok Roeun, the court’s deputy prosecutor, said that preliminary investigations had led to the filing of the charges, but that further investigations were necessary before a trial date is set.
“Sam Rainsy was charged on Friday, and the investigating judge will continue investigating the cases and then will submit it to the trial judges,” he said.
Government lawyer Ky Tech filed the complaints against Sam Rainsy on February 26, after the SRP president released maps that the party said offered “unprecedented evidence” of Vietnamese border incursions. Sam Rainsy, who has already been sentenced in absentia to two years in jail for uprooting six wooden posts along the Vietnamese border in October, faces an additional 18 years in prison if convicted on the new charges.
SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said he was not surprised by the court’s decision to pursue the complaints, saying the government tried to silence the criticisms of all those who tried to expose its abuses of power.
“I’m not concerned about the trial against president Sam Rainsy because the trial is under the pressure of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and is politically motivated to silence and exhaust the opposition party,” he said.
Sam Rainsy’s lawyer, Choung Chou Ngy, said he would wait until the trial judge sends him a summons before taking any action.
“I’m not worried about the case, and I will commit to fulfill the obligation of defending my client according to legal procedures and will try to bring justice for him,” he said, expressing hope that the court would play an independent role in the proceedings.
Chea Vannath, an independent analyst based in Phnom Penh, said the continued self-exile of Sam Rainsy the country’s main opposition leader was an indictment of the current state of democracy in Cambodia. She also said that a negotiated settlement would be to the benefit of all parties involved.
“I think both the opposition party and the ruling party would benefit if the ruling party continues to practise its ‘win-win’ policy as a way of resolving this issue,” she said.
A sore point
However, the Vietnamese border is a sensitive issue for the current government, which has long enjoyed close relations with Hanoi. In 2005 and 2006, several government critics, including Mom Sonando, director of Beehive Radio, were taken to court after criticising the signing of a border treaty with Vietnam in 2005. That treaty, which supplemented a 1985 border agreement, forms the basis of the current demarcation efforts.
Hang Chhaya, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said that Sam Rainsy’s attempts to keep the Vietnamese border issue on the agenda had clearly irked the government, which is keen to keep the spotlight on its much-publicised standoff with Thailand.
“When Sam Rainsy produced maps showing where the border posts were, it just prolonged the incident,” he said. “The government wants to flex its muscles and send a message that they don’t want these issues to continue.”
Others said it was unclear why, after sentencing Sam Rainsy to two years’ prison in January, the government was pursuing additional charges.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said last month that the threat of a two-year prison term was “sufficient to keep [Sam Rainsy] out of politics for a while”, or at least until international pressure necessitates his return to the country.
In February 2006, Sam Rainsy returned from a similar spell abroad after receiving a Royal pardon for a defamation conviction, and Prince Norodom Ranariddh waited for the annulment of an embezzlement conviction before returning to Cambodia in October 2008.
Ou Virak predicted that a similar political deal would herald Sam Rainsy’s return, but warned that, as with Prince Norodom Ranariddh, a prolonged absence from in-country politics could damage his political standing.
“By the time they reached a political solution, [Ranariddh’s] political career was dead,” Ou Virak said.