SVAY RIENG PROVINCE
SVAY RIENG provincial court has convicted opposition leader Sam Rainsy of racial incitement and destroying demarcation posts on the border with Vietnam, a verdict rights activists have labelled “ridiculous”.
In a closed-door session on Wednesday, Judge Koam Chhean sentenced the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) president to two years prison and fined him 8 million riels (around US$1,927) in absentia, said Sam Sokong, the defense attorney of two villagers convicted on similar charges.
“I cannot accept the trial today, because it did not take evidence and proof into consideration to find justice,” Sam Sokong said. “The court did not base its decision on the evidence.”
His clients – villagers Meas Srey, 39, and Prom Chea, 41 – were sentenced to one year each on the charge of destroying public property. The three accused were also ordered to collectively pay 55 million riels ($13,253) in compensation for the removal of the border markers.
After the hearing, Long Ry, an SRP lawmaker who attended the trial, scorned the verdict, saying the proceedings were a farce. “The decision was prepared beforehand and everything was decided in advance. The court ‘acted’ very well,” he said afterwards.
Wednesday’s proceedings were closed to members of the public, and the gate to the provincial courthouse was guarded by a phalanx of police and military police officers.
IN DATES Sam Rainsy’s border struggle
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.
November 16, 2009
Sam Rainsy is stripped of his parliamentary immunity by the National Assembly, paving the way for his prosecution in connection with the October incident.
November 24, 2009
Svay Rieng provincial court Prosecutor Keo Sothear charges Sam Rainsy with incitement of racial discrimination and destruction of property under Articles 52 and 61 of the UNTAC criminal code.
December 23, 2009
Two Svay Rieng villagers – Meas Srey, 39, and Prum Chea, 41 – are arrested by provincial authorities for allegedly taking part in the October protest with Sam Rainsy. Three other villagers go into hiding.
January 5, 2010
Prime Minister Hun Sen announces that there will be no pardon for Sam Rainsy in the event that he is convicted by Svay Rieng provincial court.
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
Sam Rainsy is convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. Meas Srey and Prum Chea both receive one-year terms, and the three are ordered to pay a total of 63 million riels (US$15,180) in damages.
Nget Nara, a coordinator for the rights group Adhoc, described the reception of the police as “hostile”, saying they not only prevented journalists and civil society activists from attending, but also the relatives of the accused.
“The authorities seemed prepared to have a fight,” he said. “This is not democracy.”
Sam Rainsy’s attorney, Choung Choungy, said the heavy police presence was clearly being used to intimidate the defence teams and influence the ruling of the court.
“The court is independent, but while in session, the court was surrounded by the government’s armed forces,” he said. “Do [the judges] dare release my client when police surround the court like this?”
When the verdict was read, Sim Keuy, 63, the mother of Prum Chea, broke down outside the court’s gates.
“I take pity on my daughter,” she said. “I would like Samdech Hun Sen to release my daughter today. I am old now, and I don’t have anyone to feed the family.”
Rights groups also slammed the severity of the rulings, describing them as a “blatant political persecution” of the three accused. “This is yet another setback in democracy after a number of SRP members, activists, council members and members of parliament have been threatened or jailed for raising public issues
and challenging government policies in the past few years,” said Naly Pilorge, director of the rights group Licadho.
Ou Virak, president of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said the brevity of the trial indicated that the judges had made no attempt to determine the status of the land in Samrong commune that was at the centre of the villagers’ concerns.
“I don’t think the court can determine the issue of ownership in such a hurry… This is a political case,” he said.
Judge Koam Chhean could not be reached for comment following the hearing. But one official said the criticisms were misplaced, since all Cambodian judges were obliged to follow due process and adhere to the law.
“Everyone has different ideas, but we have one law,” said Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan. “We have to accept the judge’s decision.”
He added: “If someone doesn’t like [a court ruling] they can go to the next level, to the Supreme Court. If they don’t like the law, they can go to the Constitutional Council.”
A ‘blessing in disguise’
The charges against the three stemmed from an October 25 incident in which Sam Rainsy helped villagers uproot six temporary border posts in Svay Rieng’s Chantrea district, which locals claimed were placed in their ricefields by Vietnamese authorities.
Last week, the SRP released what it described as “unprecedented evidence” that four Vietnamese border markers in the area sit well inside Cambodia’s legal territory as defined by French and American maps.
When contacted on Wednesday, Sam Rainsy said the swift, secret nature of the trial was an indication that the government was increasingly nervous about his claims.
“I think they are afraid – afraid of the evidence that I am exposing, afraid of the publicity surrounding this case,” he said by phone from Paris, pledging to reveal further evidence of Vietnamese incursions at a video press conference today.
“For me [the verdict] is a blessing in disguise, because it will give me the opportunity to continue to expose evidence of what I have been saying when defending Cambodian farmers,” he said. “All my claims and allegations are serious evidence based on facts.”
Sam Rainsy added that he had made an offer to the Cambodian government to turn himself over in exchange for the release of the two villagers and binding guarantees that they will regain their lost rice fields in Svay Rieng.
“I will catch the first plane tomorrow if I hear news tonight that they have satisfied my demands,” he said, adding that the government appeared to be “considering” the offer.
The Svay Rieng trial recalls Sam Rainsy’s flight from the country in February 2005, after he had his parliamentary immunity suspended pending a defamation case, an act that initiated a yearlong exile for the SRP president. In December 2005, he was convicted of the charge and sentenced to 18 months in jail, but a Royal pardon in February 2006 smoothed the way for his return to Cambodia.
Ou Virak said that, as in 2006, escalating international pressure might force the government into brokering a political settlement with Sam Rainsy. But with less tension in the government than existed in 2005 and 2006, he said, it could be a while before the opposition leader again sets foot on Cambodian soil.
Sam Rainsy said that even if he is forced to remain overseas, he will not “remain idle” and will continue to force the border issue onto the agenda.
“I am not going to remain silent. I will continue to expose evidence to the Cambodian people, to world opinion, and I imagine the Hun Sen government will find themselves in an untenable position,” he said.
“Sam Rainsy is going to provoke a change in the situation.”