SAM Rainsy’s conviction yesterday at Phnom Penh Municipal Court has struck a blow both to the opposition and the prospects for pluralism in Cambodia, local observers said.
The 10-year sentence Sam Rainsy received follows a two-year term handed down in January by the Svay Rieng provincial court in connection with a protest last year in which he uprooted border markers to protest alleged Vietnamese encroachment.
Yesterday’s conviction for disinformation and falsifying public documents stems from the opposition leader’s attempts to vindicate his border claims by publicising maps of the territory in question in press conferences and on the SRP website.
In a statement yesterday from Europe, where he has lived since fleeing the Kingdom last year, Sam Rainsy dismissed yesterday’s ruling as that of a “kangaroo court” in the thrall of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party. “Only a kangaroo court can issue the type of verdict we saw today,” Sam Rainsy said.
“Everybody, from independent human rights organisations to the United Nations special rapporteur on the human rights situation in Cambodia, rightly says that the judiciary in this country is everything but independent, being only a political tool for the authoritarian ruling party to silence any critical voices.”
In a report published last week, special rapporteur Surya Subedi said laws on disinformation and defamation had been used “selectively and in a biased manner against journalists, human rights activists and political leaders”.
“Public figures should be prepared to tolerate more criticism and avoid using the courts to silence critics,” the report said.
In an email yesterday, Subedi said he was “concerned” about Sam Rainsy’s conviction.
“There is a worrying trend of cases involving parliamentarians in Cambodia, as I have highlighted in my report,” Subedi said. “I will be raising this case when I address the [UN] Human Rights Council next week.”
Aside from Subedi’s comments, however, the conviction drew a muted response from the diplomatic community.
Officials at the British, French and Australian embassies did not respond to requests for comment, and the United States Embassy declined to comment. Yesterday’s hearing was lightly attended save for a few observers and local journalists who gathered outside the court.
Sam Rainsy’s conviction follows recent summonses by the Municipal Court for opposition politicians Chea Poch, an SRP parliamentarian, and Kem Sokha, president of the Human Rights Party. In both instances, the summonses related to cases that were several years old.
Sam Rainsy also received a summons earlier this month in relation to a two-year-old defamation lawsuit brought by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong.
“This is going to become a de facto one-party state if we continue this trend,” said Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.
Thun Saray, president of the local rights group Adhoc, and Yeng Virak, executive director of the Community Legal Education Centre, said they hoped see the SRP and CPP work together to broker a political settlement that would help preserve pluralism in Cambodian politics. Sam Rainsy was able to return from exile following a 2005 defamation conviction thanks to a Royal pardon requested by Hun Sen.
“In a democratic society, the majority also has to give tolerance to the minority,” Thun Saray said. “Both of them, they need to coexist.”
Such a compromise may be slow in coming, however. Senate President Chea Sim rejected a request from the SRP last week that he intervene in Sam Rainsy’s case, and Hun Sen said Monday that there was no room for negotiation.
“If you don’t come to jail, the prison will go to take you,” Hun Sen said.
KEY DATES: the Sam Rainsy saga
Sam Rainsy flees into exile after losing his parliamentary immunity in connection with a defamation complaint by Prince Norodom Ranariddh. In December, he is sentenced to 18 months’ jail.
The SRP leader returns to Cambodia after a political settlement paved the way for a Royal pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni absolving him of the defamation charge.
October 25, 2009
Sam Rainsy travels to Svay Rieng province’s Chantrea district and joins villagers in uprooting wooden border markers along the Vietnamese frontier to protest alleged encroachments.
January 24, 2010
The SRP releases what it says is “unprecedented evidence” of Vietnamese border incursions. The evidence includes maps showing border markers 300 to 500 metres inside Cambodian territory.
January 27, 2010
Svay Rieng provincial court sentences Sam Rainsy to two years in prison over the incident. The next month, he is charged with falsifying public documents and disinformation.
September 9, 2010
Sam Rainsy is summoned to appear in court on September 28 in connection with a defamation case filed by Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in 2008.
September 20, 2010
Prime Minister Hun Sen warns that he will not intervene to allow Sam Rainsy’s return to Cambodia, saying he should serve his full sentence.
September 23, 2010
Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicts Sam Rainsy on both charges and sentences him to an 10 additional years in prison.