Khmer Power Party leader Sourn Serey Ratha was yesterday charged with inciting soldiers to disobey orders after he criticised the deployment of troops to the Lao border, with Prime Minister Hun Sen saying anyone else who criticised the deployment would also be jailed.
Serey Ratha wrote on Facebook that conflict with Laos would only harm soldiers, while the generals enjoyed their “money” and “girls” from the comfort of air-conditioned rooms.
With a swiftness seldom seen in Cambodia’s judicial system, Serey Ratha was put on trial yesterday evening at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, just one day after being arrested. However, Judge Ros Piseth agreed to postpone the trial until August 24 and send Serey Ratha to pretrial detention instead after the minor party leader protested that he had no legal representation since he had only just been detained.
Serey Ratha was nevertheless charged with “inciting military personnel to disobedience” under Article 471 of the Criminal Code, “demoralisation of the army” under Article 472 and “incitement to commit a felony” under articles 494 and 495.
The first two charges carry prison sentences of two to five years each, while the last charge carries a sentence of six months to two years. Serey Ratha has previously lived in self-imposed exile abroad over alleged terrorist designs but was pardoned in 2015.
The largely low-profile leader’s post to Facebook on Saturday evening criticising the troop deployment had gone largely unnoticed until his arrest in Phnom Penh on Sunday. Yet at a university graduation ceremony yesterday morning, Hun Sen said the post, which did not directly implore any soldiers to disobey orders, was irresponsible.
“No one resists Hun Sen, I would like to advise you,” Hun Sen told the students, warning others who considered themselves intellectuals not to follow Serey Ratha’s example and criticise the troop deployment as anything other than an effort to protect territory.
“Please, you ‘Mr Doctors’ who always analyse unclearly and with bias, if you don’t know, then shut your mouths,” Hun Sen said. “If you’re not clear, then keep silent – be careful of the handcuffs. One was already handcuffed yesterday.”
It was not clear which other figures Hun Sen was referring to, but he slammed those he said insulted him by saying the weekend’s events were political theatre. “They invaded already and you considered it as a way for the Cambodian People’s Party to win votes,” he said.
“Was it a way to win votes?” he asked rhetorically, before rejecting the idea as insulting. “Whoever comments on this issue must take responsibility before the law.”
“We cannot accept it,” he continued. “We warn other commentators, if you are staying in Cambodia we will arrest you for . . . offences of insulting a race that has independence and sovereignty . . . Don’t say I’m a dictator.”
KPP’s deputy leader, Soung Sophorn, who on Sunday said Serey Ratha had incited no crime or disobedience and had the right to criticise the army, added yesterday that he was bemused by the speedy case against his party’s leader. In particular, he slammed the decision to put Serey Ratha on trial one day after his arrest, noting recent political cases that have seen figures thrown in prison for more than a year of pretrial detention.
“Normally, for investigations of other cases, they take the opportunity to take a long time. But this case, on the contrary, they rushed to prepare it and close it, and only postponed the trial because he didn’t even have a lawyer,” Sorphorn said.
Sorphorn called for the charges to be dismissed as quickly as they were laid, and added that if Serey Ratha’s comments amounted to incitement, then Hun Sen should face the same charges for his repeated claims that war would break out if the opposition wins an election.
Defence Minister Tea Banh was also a more likely candidate for incitement charges, he added, due to his recent threat to “smash the teeth” of anyone who dared to protest a CPP election win.