TAKEO provincial court has convicted four people of disinformation for their alleged roles in spreading leaflets critical of the government – a verdict rights groups have slammed as unjust.
Following roughly four hours of questioning yesterday, Judge Cheng Bunly convicted all four suspects, including an employee of a human rights NGO, of disinformation, sentencing three of them to two years each in prison and fining them 2 million riels (US$476).
A fourth person – Tach Khong Phoung, who was accused of leading the plot to distribute leaflets – was tried in absentia and sentenced to three years in prison and fined 6 million riels (US$1,430).
The court ruled that the three men who were present – Leang Sokchouen, a staff member of rights group Licadho; Thach Vannak, a former Khmer Krom monk; and Thach Le, a motorbike-taxi driver – scattered anti-government leaflets in three districts in Takeo earlier this year. The leaflets, which were distributed before the January 7 anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime, asserted that the day should be remembered as the day Cambodia became “abused and occupied” by Vietnam, rather than celebrated as a day of liberation.
In explaining his verdict yesterday, Cheng Bunly said he did not believe claims from the three accused that they played no role in the scheme.
“The leaflets were meant to criticise the government,” Cheng Bunly said.
Leang Sokchouen had testified that he was an acquaintance of Tach Khong Phoung, but that he had nothing to do with distributing any leaflets and was not even in the province at the time.
Thach Vannak testified that Tach Khong Phoung had given him a black plastic bag, which he later discovered contained 500 antigovernment leaflets. He said he threw the leaflets away and did not distribute them.
Thaach Le testified that he did not know Tach Khong Phoung personally, but had given him a ride and agreed to throw away a plastic bag for 15,000 riels.
Cheng Bunly, however, said the explanations of the three were not credible. “The court cannot accept” these answers, the judge said. “These actions affect the national leaders and create unrest in society.”
The rights group Licadho has already criticised authorities’ decision to arrest and charge Leang Sokchoeun in the first place, accusing police of conducting a rushed investigation that produced little evidence implicating him.
In a statement on Sunday, Licadho said the case was an example of the improper use of the courts in politically sensitive cases.
“The accusation of the court and the report from police cannot be enough evidence,” Am Sam Ath, Licadho’s technical supervisor, said on Monday.
He said that the court’s decision appeared to be influenced by a high-ranking official, though he did not speculate who that could be.
“This is an unjust decision of the court. We will appeal,” Am Sam Ath said.
Thach Vannak and Thach Le were not represented by lawyers in court yesterday.
Leang Sokchouen appeared to faint after the verdict was announced. Outside the court, his aunt, Hong Kimheang, begged Prime Minister Hun Sen to intervene.
“Only Samdech Hun Sen … can help. Anywhere there is suffering, there will be Samdech to help,” she said.