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The Appeal Court in Phnom Penh has ordered the release of two villagers convicted along with opposition leader Sam Rainsy in connection with a protest against alleged Vietnamese encroachment on Cambodian territory, though Sam Rainsy’s two-year term was upheld.
The two villagers – Meas Srey, 40, and Prum Chea, 41 – saw their one-year jail terms for destroying public property reduced by just over two months.
The pair was sentenced in January at the Svay Rieng provincial court after an October incident in which they allegedly joined Sam Rainsy in uprooting border markers in Svay Rieng province’s Chantrea district.
The Appeal Court upheld Sam Rainsy’s two-year sentence for racial incitement and destroying public property, and maintained the original fine for all three of 55 million riels (US$12,999), along with an additional 8 million riels Sam Rainsy was required to pay in compensation to district authorities.
After spending nine months and 20 days in prison, Meas Srey and Prum Chea said they were relieved to be heading home.
“I am very excited to return and see my children,” Meas Srey said as she walked out of the courtroom.
Prum Chea said he was “very happy” and “thankful” for his release.
Judge Khun Leang Meng said the actions of Sam Rainsy and the two villagers had adversely affected Cambodian-Vietnamese relations, and held Sam Rainsy chiefly responsible.
“This activity has affected the dignity of both countries’ people,” he said. “[We] understood that Meas Srey and Prum Chea uprooted the posts, but they acted on the incitement [of Sam Rainsy].”
In justifying the villagers’ early release, Khun Leang Meng said they did not have the same level of education about the law as Sam Rainsy. He also noted that they are both first-time offenders with children to care for at home.
Sam Sokong, the lawyer for Meas Srey and Prum Chea, said he would consider appealing to the Supreme Court to overturn their fine because his clients “do not have the ability to pay”.
Sam Rainsy, who is living abroad after fleeing the Kingdom last year, said in an email from Finland that the government should “apologise to Meas Srey and Prum Chea for unjustly arresting them and detaining them for nearly a year”.
He also called on the government to “give them back their rice fields in Svay Rieng province’s Koh Kban Kandal village with appropriate land titles and assurances that they will be allowed to live in peace from now on”.
The decision follows Sam Rainsy’s conviction in abstentia last month for disinformation and falsifying public documents in connection with his attempts to vindicate his claims of Vietnamese encroachment. The opposition leader received a 10-year prison sentence to go with the two-year term handed down in Svay Rieng.
When asked whether he would appeal yesterday’s decision, Sam Rainsy said he had “no respect for any court in Cambodia”, and that “a political solution is needed for this political problem”. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY THOMAS MILLER