The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday held an incitement trial against seven opposition activists over Facebook posts accusing Prime Minister Hun Sen of hiding Covid-19 deaths in March last year, as well as making other claims against him.
A 30-minute trial was held without any of the defendants or defense lawyers present. The defendants all live overseas, though one of them said he had last week asked a lawyer to represent him and four others.
In the public gallery were two journalists, a police official — who was to be called as a witness — and an official from the U.S. Embassy. Presiding judge Ouk Reth Kunthea decided to continue with the trial, asking the police official to clarify the facts of the case.
Chan Darith, National Police bureau chief for investigations, told the court that an investigation had found Nou Sothea, a monk living in Canada, was frequently posting false information on his Facebook page criticizing the government amid the Covid-19 outbreak in March 2020, when some Cambodians returning from an Islamic festival in Malaysia were found to have the virus.
Darith said Sothea had posted a message claiming people had died of Covid-19 in Cambodia at the time and that Prime Minister Hun Sen was using Covid-19 to take revenge against the Muslim Cham ethnic minority.
The police official cited a March 20, 2020 post from Sothea accusing Hun Sen of having a grudge against Khmer Islam people from when he was a Khmer Rouge commander, and that Hun Sen had pursued a campaign to kill “tens of thousands” of people in Kampong Cham in 1977 before he left for Vietnam.
Sothea also accused Hun Sen of trying to hide the number of Covid-19 deaths as well as the number of Chinese nationals arriving to the country, the police official testified.
Darith noted that the Health Ministry had only confirmed the country’s first Covid-19 death almost a year later, on March 11, 2021.
He said that the police investigation found six others who posted similar messages to Sothea.
“If the action was not taken on time, it would have caused chaos in society. So far, these people are still active in disseminating untrue information to cause chaos in society,” he said.
Sothea’s March 20, 2020 Facebook is still online, and is titled, “Hun Sen is still a killer after the massacre in Krouch Chhmar district.” In it, Sothea claims Hun Sen ordered to have the Muslim community infected with Covid-19.
Aside from Sothea, 45, in Canada, five of the remaining defendants — Rin Roath, 33, Run Chanthy, 36, Mao Vibol, 38, Sim Sophea, 34, and Neang Sokhun, 33 — were in Thailand, while the seventh, Pech Sambo, 55, was in France, Darith said.
Chanthy, Roath and Vibol ran the “CNRP Fighting Group” Facebook account that constantly posted criticisms of the government, Darith said.
Following Darith’s testimony, without further questions, deputy prosecutor Ty Munin issued his closing statement, saying the seven defendants intended to incite people with their online posts.
“The activities of the seven accused really did impact the public order and social security in relation to Covid-19,” Munin said.
Roath told VOD on Thursday that he had asked a lawyer from the outlawed CNRP party last week to represent him. The lawyer, Sam Sokong, could not be reached for comment on his absence on Thursday.
Judge Reth Kunthea said the verdict would be announced on September 9.
Additional reporting by Khan Leakhena