The Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday sentenced Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmaker Um Sam An to two and a half years in prison for Facebook posts criticising the government’s handling of the Vietnamese border.
Presiding judge Heng Sokha said Sam An – who together with his lawyers boycotted yesterday’s hearing, a move that followed the defence team’s walkout during last month’s trial, which they deemed “illegal” – was guilty of “incitement to commit a felony” and “incitement to cause discrimination”.
“The court sentences Um Sam An, male, 40, [who holds] American and Cambodia citizenship, to two years and six months in jail and [imposes] a fine of 4 million riel [about $1,000],” Sokha said.
The charges stem from several Facebook posts relating to the Vietnam-Cambodia border. Sam An, long an outspoken critic on the controversial subject, claimed the government had ceded territory by using incorrect maps to demarcate the boundary.
The judge said Sam An’s comments, which he noted were shared with “tens of thousands” of social media users, constituted incitement.
“The activities of the accused could make Cambodian citizens stand up against the Cambodian government or against the Vietnamese government, because what he wrote could make the public confused, could lead to crimes happening, and would definitely cause social chaos,” he said.
Though the posts were made last year during an opposition campaign to highlight alleged encroachments by Vietnam, Sam An was arrested in April upon returning to Cambodia from an extended stay in the United States.
Sam An’s legal team argued his parliamentary immunity rendered his detention and prosecution illegal, though Sokha yesterday reiterated the government’s stance: that Sam An committed a flagrant crime – known as in flagrante delicto.
The classification allows police to arrest a lawmaker caught red-handed in the act of a crime despite their immunity, which is guaranteed by Article 80 of the constitution.
The prosecution argued Sam An’s offence was a flagrant one as his Facebook posts remained live at the time of his arrest.
Critics, however, say the government has repeatedly abused the clause to bypass immunity in cases widely seen as politically motivated, such as the legal action against opposition leader Kem Sokha and opposition Senator Hong Sok Hour.
Furthermore, though Article 80 permits lawmakers’ arrests, it also stipulates that a two-thirds majority vote by the assembly is required to permit a prosecution.
The CPP does not have a two-thirds majority, but nevertheless its lawmakers approved the case, drawing strong criticism from the CNRP and human rights groups, who have long accused the ruling party of using its hold over the judiciary to target opponents.
Yesterday, however, judge Sokha maintained proper procedure had been followed, noting the case had also been cleared by the Supreme Court, whose president is a CPP standing committee member.
Reached yesterday, Choung Choungy, one of Sam An’s lawyers, declined to comment on the sentence, saying the “process has been violated since the beginning”.
Choungy said he would consult with Sam An regarding an appeal.
CNRP lawmaker Yem Ponhearith, meanwhile, criticised the court.
“Mr Um Sam An tried his best to help with border issues but was sentenced to two years and six months instead,” Ponhearith said.“I feel very sorry for him. The court has two standards.”