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T-shirt ‘treason’ earns jail time

Dissident Sourn Serey Ratha of the so-called terrorist group Khmer People Power Movement (KPPM), two KPPM affiliates and a nonparty member were found guilty of treason yesterday and given lengthy prison terms.

Self-exiled Cambodian-American Serey Ratha was sentenced in absentia yesterday at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to seven years’ imprisonment and fined 25 million riel ($6,250) under the charges of treason, obstructing electoral procedures in 2013 and inciting to overthrow Cambodia’s government, presiding judge Top Chhung Heng said in court.

“The court is ordering that he be arrested and brought to serve his punishment as per the court’s verdict,” Chhung Heng said.

The charges are related to a Facebook post prior to the 2013 election in which Serey Ratha allegedly called on the Cambodian armed forces to turn their weapons against “the despot”, Prime Minister Hun Sen.

KPPM members Serey Bunlong, Sen Someng and civilian Oum Phirum were each sentenced to six years in prison and fined 5 million riel ($1,230) for treason and obstructing electoral procedures.

The three men were charged after they reportedly distributed T-shirts with slogans admonishing citizens to abstain from voting in the last national election.

“I did not commit any crimes like the government is accusing; what I did is a political right of the free people in a democratic country,” Serey Ratha explained in an email.

According to defence lawyer Sok Sam Oeun, all four men will appeal the verdict.

Am Sam Ath, senior monitor for rights group Licadho, said that the four men should not have been convicted as it is a direct violation of their freedom of expression.

“From the case, there does not seem to be a clear divide between the right to freedom of expression and offenses that affect the rights of citizens,” Sam Ath said.

During a previous trial on December 9, the prosecution brought in two witnesses who spoke about Serey Ratha’s overseas activities like workshops and public speaking events.

Prosecutors also entered evidence such as videos of the Cambodian-American rallying supporters to “stand up to struggle for the nation and have people in the country rebel in every village and 25 provinces."

Human rights activist and political pundit Ou Virak yesterday said that the sentences may really be about silencing dissent. In the Kingdom’s Criminal Code, the maximum sentence for treason alone is 5 to 10 years in prison while incitement is 6 months to 2 years.

“Treason should definitely carry a much heavier sentence and a charge of just seven years tells me that there is a different agenda behind this,” Virak said. “This whole thing is a mess. The court doesn’t know what it wants . . . and it’s basically a badly-directed play.”

Serey Ratha, however, said that he plans to go back to Cambodia and serve his sentence if KPPM becomes a recognised political party. In late December, the Ministry of Interior guaranteed that they will authorise the request if the recommended alterations are made to their application.

“I’m not changing my decision,” Serey Ratha said. “A politician like me, jail is my home, because I am fighting against a dictatorial regime.”

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