UPDATED 9:48 a.m. — The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has sentenced a former opposition official to one and a half years in prison for calling for a boycott of the 2018 election and criticizing the government in Facebook posts. Three other officials, including exiled acting opposition leader Sam Rainsy, were sentenced in absentia to one year and eight months’ imprisonment in the same case.
Presiding Judge Pich Vicheathor on Friday found CNRP official Kong Mas, 32, guilty of incitement to commit a felony and insult under Articles 495 and 502 of the Criminal Code.
During the trial on October 2, the court questioned the former opposition candidate for Svay Rieng province over multiple posts on Facebook, including a call for an election boycott in 2018. The court also heard that Mas had at one point controlled five Facebook accounts.
The CNRP was dissolved following the arrest of its leader Kem Sokha on treason charges in September 2017 in a case that is widely seen as political. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party won all 125 seats in the national election the following year.
Defense lawyer Sam Sokong said the court decision did not give his client justice, as he was merely exercising his freedom of expression and his right to participate in politics. “I think that people criticizing their leader is not any wrongdoing,” Sokong said.
He said he would discuss the possibility of filing an appeal with his client.
Judge Vicheathor in the same case sentenced three other CNRP officials in absentia to one year and eight months’ imprisonment, also on charges of incitement to commit a felony and insult.
Their verdict also cited Article 28, “definition of instigator,” which says a person who provokes a crime, including by giving instructions or gifts, making promises or persuading the perpetrator, is punishable by the same penalties as the perpetrator.
The judge ordered the arrest of the three officials, Rainsy, exiled former lawmaker Ho Vann, and former Phnom Penh councilor Kak Kompheak, whose whereabouts are unknown.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch called on foreign governments and donors to speak out against the recent “wave of arrests” against members of the dissolved opposition.
The Cambodian government was now holding about 60 political prisoners in its prisons, it said in a statement.
“The Cambodian government is rapidly filling its jails with activists who dare speak out about abuses, post criticism on Facebook, and meet opposition colleagues for Khmer noodles,” said Phil Robertson, the New York-based group’s deputy Asia director.
Alongside the statement, Human Rights Watch also launched their updated website listing photos and profiles of the prisoners.
The pace of the arrests has quickened in recent months since Rainsy announced his intention to return to the country on November 9. The government has accused those who support him as participating in a coup attempt after the CNRP called on soldiers to defect. The party leadership maintains that members of the military should lay down their arms and protect the opposition without weapons.
Katta Orn, a spokesman for the government’s Human Rights Committee, said in a message that Human Rights Watch was merely a “dissenting group” who would not influence Cambodia’s donors.
“The arrests of those 60 people was not because of expression or peaceful gathering. They were involved in offenses and … the state has to implement the country’s laws for the benefit of the nation,” he said.
According to court documents, over the past week former CNRP members Sam Vuthy in Siem Reap; Sao Usaphea, Ngim Keath and Nhim Kimnhol in Preah Sihanouk; Uth Choeurn in Battambang; Thorung Sambarn in Oddar Meanchey; Duong Chantra in Kampong Chhnang; Phly Bunsun in Kandal; and Phuong Kamsan in Mondulkiri were charged for plotting.
The CNRP said Cheorun and Sambarn had been arrested, while a Siem Reap Provincial Court document said Vuthy was also under arrest.
Additional reporting by Mouv Mara
Updated at 6:22 p.m. with comment from Human Rights Watch and the government’s Human Rights Committee.
Updated on October 22 with updated charges and arrests.
(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)