A prominent Radio Free Asia journalist who allegedly hid his identity to get in to Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison to interview what activists see as a key political prisoner has been called to court to potentially face charges.
Chun Chanboth was served a court summons on Friday and will appear in court in May for allegedly falsely declaring his identity as he joined a delegation of opposition lawmakers to enter the prison. Radio Free Asia reporters use pen names and Chanboth used his real name, Huot Vuthy, to register at the jail.
A video emerged over the weekend on Fresh News, an often pro-government news service, which appeared to show Chanboth was admitted as an “assistant” to the Cambodia National Rescue Party politicians he went into the jail with. Authorities have already used the case to ban CNRP officials from visiting around 20 party activists, senators, members and lawmakers in the jail.
Analysts have been quick to portray the incident as part of a heavy-handed attempt to deny media access to what opposition figures see as political prisoners ahead of elections over the next year.
The Prisons Department has claimed Chanboth sneaked into the compound on Wednesday, effectively hiding his identity and pretending to be part of an agreed group of CNRP visitors. He had already tried the same day to get in under his own initiative to meet jailed political commentator Kim Sok, who is facing charges of defamation and incitement brought after a complaint from Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Chanboth later got in with a CNRP delegation, led by lawmakers Long Ry and Mu Sochua, but did not manage to get an interview with Kim Sok. An image of the visitors log circulated online showing him listed as a CNRP assistant next to his given name Huot Vuthy.
Sok had allegedly implied in an interview with Radio Free Asia that the government was behind the killing of political analyst Kem Ley, whose murder is widely considered politically motivated.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said the video and the visitors log entry were sufficient evidence to warrant issuing a court summons to Chanboth to appear before Phnom Penh Municipal Court on May 2. He is accused of violating Article 633 of the Criminal Code, which relates to making a false declaration to a public body for obtaining “an allowance, a payment or any unlawful advantage”. It carries a sentence of up to two years jail. The Prisons Department has suggested he could face further charges.
“We see that his activity was clearly to fake his identity in order to have access to the prison, and another element [of the crime] is that he had illegal intention to enter an [state] institution,” Malin said.
CNRP lawmakers Ry and Sochua will also appear before court on April 27 and 28, respectively, but only as witnesses.
The summonses were issued following a meeting at the Interior Ministry on Friday, with ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak referring further inquires to the court. “What we found out is that he told a lie. However, he should go to defend himself in court,” he said.
Chanboth, who is usually based in the United States, declined to comment on the summons yesterday, relaying further queries to John Estrella, RFA’s chief operating officer and vice president of external affairs, who did not respond as of press time.
Ry could not be reached yesterday and Sochua declined to comment on the video, only to say that she was still deciding whether to honour the summons. On Thursday, Sochua said she was unaware of Chanboth’s presence until after she had entered the prison compound. “I am having legal consultation. I already said that we still hope that there will be a solution,” she said.
Political commentator Meas Ny said that Chanboth seemed to have clearly identified himself at the various checkpoints at Prey Sar, and that even if he tried to sneak in, a criminal complaint was not warranted.
“If it was not politically motivated this would not have been such a big issue,” he said. “It is not a serious case unless he sneaked in to do something bad or kill someone.”
Additionally, prominent lawyer Choung Choungy questioned the use of Article 633, which he said did not seem to fit the alleged crime.
“But with the implementation of the law in Cambodia, in some cases the court does not [need to] find a mistake, but just wants to punish right away,” he said.