Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday sentenced a Cambodian United Nations employee to six months jail for disseminating material critical of the government, only two days after his arrest.
Seng Kunnaka, who is employed as a guard by the UN World Food Programme, was arrested in Russei Keo district on Friday in possession of printed material from the online news blog KI-Media.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor for local rights group Licadho, said Seng Kunnaka was convicted of criminal incitement under Article 495 of the new Penal Code. Judge Keo Vandy also ordered him to pay 1 million riels (US$250) in fines, he said.
Chet Khemara, a prosecutor at the court, was reluctant to discuss the contents of the printed material confiscated from Seng Kunnaka, saying he was too busy to talk yesterday.
Ung Borith, the police chief of Kilometre 6 commune, in Russey Keo district, said the arrest was made because Seng Kunnaka “spread information to other people to read”.
KI-Media, a popular blog run by Khmer exiles, aggregates news articles relating to Cambodia, and often takes a strong antigovernment line.
Seng Kunnaka’s speedy trial has come under attack from opposition figures and rights activists, who have described it as a clear attack on freedom of expression.
“This rushed trial and groundless conviction is further proof of the growing crackdown on freedom of expression by the Cambodian government,” Licadho Director Naly Pilorge said in a statement yesterday.
Naly Pilorge added that his conviction under the new Penal Code – which came into effect on December 10 – was a signal that free speech would suffer under the new legislation.
“The new criminal code in its current form is a threat to freedom of expression in the country. This conviction, exactly ten days after the enactment of the new criminal code, is clear evidence of that,” she added.
Opposition Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann said the party “condemned” the nature of Seng Kunnaka’s conviction.
“Some leaders are not generous. Who can feed his children while he is in prison?” he said.
He also downplayed suggestions that KI-Media was aligned with the SRP, saying that in either case it was a legitimate source that he had used himself.
Hang Chhaya, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said he could not comment in detail as he had not seen the offending material. But he deplored any move to restrict debate on legitimate political topics.
“The government has been trying to move to shut down the political debate and other discussions [online],” Hang Chhaya said. “This is incredible. I thought we’d ... moved beyond that now.”
WFP country director Jean-Pierre DeMargerie said via email yesterday that the organisation was “still trying to clarify the facts and developments of the last few days” leading up to Seng Kunnaka’s conviction.
“WFP worldwide looks after the interests of its employees,” he said. “On this case, once clarity is obtained on above points, we’ll ensure that assistance is provided to staff as necessary and as appropriate.”
Government spokesman Khieu Kanharith declined to comment.