A former CNRP official sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment for allegedly taking part in gatherings to support exiled leaders of the now-dissolved opposition group on Wednesday morning appealed what he said was an unfair conviction.
In September 2020, the Tbong Khmum Provincial Court convicted Kong Sam An, now 69, and six others plotting to overthrow the government in connection to opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s unsuccessful attempt to return in 2019. Sam An is a former CNRP council member from Memot district who is currently imprisoned at Prey Sar and had also been convicted for incitement last October for protesting unionist Rong Chhun’s imprisonment.
The provincial court had accused the seven defendants of posting on their personal Facebook pages in an attempt to gather people to support the attempted return of Rainsy, which the exiled political figure had planned for November 9, 2019.
The other convicted people are Sim Seang Leng, 40, Vann Sophat, 46, Chim Vannak, 32, and Chak Hour, 35. The court also convicted Yem Vannet, 27, and Mean La, 30.
Police arrested Sam An at his home on September 6, 2020. The court handed down Sam An’s conviction weeks later on September 22 and sentenced the group as a whole to between five and seven years’ imprisonment.
Sam An unsuccessfully appealed his conviction in October 2020 in Tbong Khmum.
Defense lawyer Sam Sokong, who represented Sam An in his Wednesday morning hearing at the Supreme Court, said his client was appealing the ruling for two main reasons, which he described as a violation of law and exaggeration of facts of the case.
Sokong said the prosecution has used photos of Sam An at six different gatherings that included CNRP supporters, including parties for a birthday and New Year, as well as a photo of the group eating the traditional Khmer noodle dish num banh chok, as evidence of wrongdoing. The defense lawyer said Sam An had neither organized these events nor posted photos of them online and had only attended after being invited by a friend.
Supporters of the former opposition party had embraced num banh chok as a political symbol after party members were summoned to court for gathering at a former colleague’s Battambang restaurant that served the noodles.
“There is no evidence to prove that my client had set up a plan and a group. He just supported CNRP leaders overseas,” the defense lawyer said. “My client had no intention to commit as he was charged and attended [the gatherings] based on friends’ invitations.”
Sokong said there is only one piece of evidence that incriminated his client, which is a Facebook post made on September 14, 2018, when Sam An wrote that he supported the “five principles” of the Cambodia National Rescue Movement as announced by Rainsy.
However, Sokong said this was his client’s right of free expression guaranteed by Article 41 of the Constitution, adding that self-expression is not a kind of plotting.
Sokong asked the appeal court to drop the charge against Sam An and free him. Speaking outside the court, the lawyer said the conviction of his client could be politically motivated because he was a CNRP activist.
During the trial, Sam An told the Appeal Court that he experienced injustice from the beginning. He said he was arrested in his home in 2020 without an arrest warrant by police who told him that they wanted him to provide a bit of testimony.
Sam An said that after he was brought into the provincial court for questioning he was asked to thumbprint a blank paper. He was also not allowed to have his personal lawyer but instead was appointed a different lawyer by the court.
Sam An said he was persuaded to cooperate, and during the trial, was shown one black-and-white photo and asked whether he recognized it. He said he knew it even though he was not sure, because he could not see it clearly.
“With just this, I was sentenced to seven years in prison,” he said.
“I asked the judge to drop the charges against me. I used to be a teacher and served the country for almost half of my life, for nearly 30 years and finally, I was charged with plotting,” Sam An said. “Frankly, I love the nation. I had not joined any plotting.”
However, deputy prosecutor Chhoun Chantha said Sam An had indeed posted messages to gather forces to topple the government and that the lower court’s decision was proper based on the law.
Presiding Judge Kong Srim will announce the verdict on May 4.