PHNOM Penh Municipal Court Judge Chhay Kong on Tuesday sentenced the head of the Khmer Civilisation Foundation to two years in prison, fined him 7 million riels (US$1,671) and ordered him to pay an additional 8 million riels in compensation to the Apsara Authority for suggesting in interviews that the heat from lights at Angkor Wat could damage the 11th-century temple.
The judge ordered the Ministry of Interior to arrest and imprison Moeung Sonn, who fled to France in June when he was charged with incitement and spreading false information, if he returns to Cambodian soil.
"We find that the accused damaged the government's reputation and caused anarchy and disorder in society. There are enough elements to convict him," Chhay Kong said.
Moeung Sonn told the Post from France the verdict was unjust, describing it as a blow to free speech in Cambodia.
"I am appealing the conviction and calling on all local NGOs, international communities, observers and the respected King Sihamoni to seek intervention to bring justice to me," he said, adding that his attempts to meet with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is also in France, had been unsuccessful.
Moeung Sonn's defence lawyer, Sam Sokong, said his client had become concerned about the lights only after the public did.
"My client didn't intend to damage or degrade the government's reputation, especially not the Apsara Authority," he said, referring to the body that manages the temple complex.
After the verdict was read, Sam Sokong told the Post that the court had clearly ignored the defence's case.
"The court didn't even consider the evidence and documents that I presented," he said.
Am Sam Ath, a technical supervisor for the rights group Licadho, called the conviction a "grave injustice" and said there were "not enough pieces of evidence or witnesses to convict him".
But prosecutor Ek Chheng Huot and government lawyer Pal Chan Dara said Moeung Sonn had purposefully undermined the credibility of the government.
"Moeung Sonn really knew what he did, and he kept distributing his disinformation to reporters to print the stories and also to broadcast on local radio. This caused confusion to millions of Cambodian people who love Angkor Wat," Pal Chan Dara said.
Ek Chheng Huot said the case against Moeung Sonn was necessary to avoid a violent outburst from a misinformed public.
"If we didn't stop Moeung Sonn's activities ... there would have been a big demonstration similar to the riots that burned the Thai Embassy in 2003," he said.
Ek Chheng Huot said Moeung Sonn continued to stoke fears about the lights even after officials said in a press conference that they would have no effect on the temple.