The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on August 18 sentenced Rong Chhun, head of the Cambodia Watchdog Council, to two years in prison and fined him two million riel ($500) for incitement to cause serious disorder to social security.
Two other activists were also convicted on the same charges. Sor Kanika and Ton Nimol, who were arrested for demanding Chhun’s release, were sentenced to 20 months incarceration and fined two million riel each, according to the court spokesman Plong Sophal.
“The court also ordered the three accused to pay compensation to the Cambodian Border Affairs Committee, the plaintiff, in the amount of 400 million riel [$100,000],” Sophal said.
Chhun was arrested in July of last year for posting claims to Facebook that Cambodia had lost land to Vietnam, citing comments by villagers.
Chhun’s defence lawyer Choung Chou Ngy, who also defended Sor Kanika, said the sentence was unjust and he was discussing an appeal with his clients.
After the verdict was issued, some foreign diplomats expressed dismay over the ruling, saying the sentence was unjust and that the decision violated Cambodia’s Constitution, which ensures freedom of expression.
“The conviction of respected union leader Rong Chhun raises serious questions about the freedom of speech protected in Cambodia’s Constitution, which is essential to the functioning of a democracy,” tweeted US ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy.
“The judicial system should not be abused to silence peaceful activists,” he added.
UK ambassador to Cambodia Tina Redshaw said she was “seriously concerned and disappointed to hear of the sentencing of Rong Chhun”.
“Freedom of expression is protected in Cambodia’s Constitution and the judiciary shouldn’t be used to curtail it. Strong governments are open to hearing and engaging with a range of views from all of society,” she tweeted.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin said the two foreign ambassadors’ statements were not consistent with Cambodia’s Constitution and laws.
“The legal procedures brought against him [Chhun] were not due to his exercise of freedom of speech, but because he had committed a crime. The authorities had a strong legal basis and evidence to bring the case to court and it led to these penalties.
“If any party wants to help him because they believe that he is innocent, they have to show evidence to prove this. But they don’t have any evidence, just their accusations. So, how can they help him?” Malin said.
In October last year, the Ministry of Interior said Chhun posted a statement along with a video to Facebook describing his activities along the border. The government said these activities were undertaken with the intent to incite social disorder and chaos and cause serious upheaval affecting national security.
According to the justice ministry, Chhun’s arrest adhered to the Kingdom’s Criminal Code as he fabricated information about the line of demarcation at the Cambodia-Vietnam border with the goal of misleading the public and causing social unrest.