A court in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh on Wednesday sentenced prominent union leader Rong Chhun to two years in jail for his criticism of the government’s handling of a longstanding border dispute with neighboring Vietnam.
Rong Chhun, who is also a member of the Cambodia Watchdog Council (CWC) umbrella NGO of unions representing teachers, workers, farmers, and students was jailed at Prey Sar Prison on Aug. 1, 2020, a day after his arrest for claiming the government has allowed Vietnam to encroach on Cambodian farmland along the border.
The court also ordered Rong Chhun to pay 2 million riels (U.S. $490) in fines, which along with the two years prison term is the maximum sentence possible for his charge of “incitement to commit a felony” in violation of Article 945 of Cambodia’s penal code.
The court sentenced two other activists, Sar Kanika and Tun Nimol, each to serve 20 months in jail and pay the same fine. The court also ordered the three activists to pay about $100,000 in compensation to the Cambodia Border Affairs Committee.
Following the judge’s announcement, Rong Chhun, Sar Kanika, and Tun Nimol shouted “unjust,” “The court is not independent, and its verdicts are given under political influences.”
Court officials then asked the three activists to sign their names in a blank book. Rong Chhun refused, but the other two signed.
Guards at the court forbade anyone to visit Rong Chhun following the verdict, citing COVID-19 concerns.
The three defendants have asked their defense lawyer Sam Sokong to appeal against the lower court’s decisions.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service, defense attorney Sam Sokong said the verdicts against his clients are harsh.
“As a lawyer, I am disappointed with the verdicts,” he said. “Based on the evidence and the law, my clients should have been acquitted of all charges.”
“We even saw a maximum punishment handed down that I rarely ever see, and the civil compensation is also harsh and not equivalent to the [alleged] damage,” he added.
About 20 observers, including diplomats, attended the court’s announcement of the verdict.
Rong Chhun’s nephew Rong Vichea told reporters in front of the courthouse that he would not accept the verdict against his uncle, describing it as unfair and saying the court had not reached its decision independently.
“I am very sad and cannot accept it. The court sentenced a nationalist who is innocent to two years in jail. This shows a double standard [in justice] in Khmer society,” he said.
Tun Nimol’s wife Chhey Srey Ny told RFA that she has urged the court to release her husband, saying he and the other activists are innocent.
Ny Sokha, president of the local rights group ADHOC told RFA that NGOs were saddened with the court’s decision and that the trio had not committed any crime. Freedom of expression and the right to peaceful gatherings are basic rights protected by the Constitution, he said.
The verdict against Rong Chhun’s verdict will now intimidate and discourage people, especially Cambodia’s youth, from speaking freely about border issues, he said.
“The border is a sensitive issue… between Cambodia and Vietnam… so the court has shown its lack of independence by handing down these verdicts,” he said.
An emotional Ouk Chhayavy, president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association (CITA), told RFA that she was sad that the country’s Ministry of Justice cannot be relied on by the Cambodian people.
“We all have lost confidence in [the ministry]. Rong Chhun is an individual who focused on border issues and human rights violations in Cambodia. Rong Chhun worked to promote human rights, but human rights in Cambodia is on the decline,” she said.
“When I listened to the verdict, I was so hurt to see Rong Chhun in such poor health, and that he was not given the right to speak out.”
In response to criticism of the verdict, Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin told the pro-government online newspaper Fresh News that anyone wanting to help Rong Chhun’s legal case should provide evidence and not make allegations if they want the court to drop charges or grant appeals against the verdicts.
Rong Chhun’s verdict does not represent “intimidation or pressure against freedom, but rather promotes freedom and the rule of law in a democratic society,” he said.
Pablo Kang, Australia’s ambassador to Cambodia, wrote on Twitter that the verdicts for the three activists were “disheartening.”
He said the harsh verdicts “were for what most would see as the peaceful expression of legitimate albeit controversial points of view, rather than incitement.”
“[Cambodia] should be better than this,” he said.
U.S. Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy also tweeted criticism of the verdict, saying, “The conviction of respected union leader Rong Chhun raises serious questions about freedom of speech protected in Cambodia’s constitution and essential to the functioning of a democracy.”
“The judicial system should not be abused to silence peaceful activists,” he wrote.
Longstanding border issues
Unresolved border issues between Cambodia and Vietnam, both former French colonies from the 1860s to 1954, have sparked incidents in the past, with the construction by Vietnam of military posts in contested areas quickly challenged by Cambodian authorities in Phnom Penh.
In June 2015, activists from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) were attacked by Vietnamese villagers when they went to inspect an area in Svay Rieng province where they said a road built by authorities in Vietnam’s Long An province had encroached into Cambodian territory.
A joint communique signed by Cambodia and Vietnam in 1995 stipulates that neither side can make any changes to border markers or allow cross-border cultivation or settlement pending the resolution of outstanding border issues.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
This content originally appeared on Radio Free Asia and was authored by Radio Free Asia.