Rong Chhun, a long-time activist and unionist, was sentenced on Wednesday to two years in jail at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, and he and two other defendants were ordered to pay a total 400 million riel, or nearly $100,000, in damages to Cambodia’s border committee.
Chhun was arrested at the end of July last year after issuing a statement that Cambodia was ceding territory to Vietnam along the border in Tbong Khmum province, a racially charged and contentious issue. His arrest sparked weeks of small nationalist protests in his support, leading to several other arrests.
On Wednesday, Chhun was found guilty of incitement to disturb social security alongside Ton Nimol and Sar Kanika, who had protested in support of Chhun but told the court during a trial hearing in February that they were only a tuk-tuk driver and market vendor, not political activists.
Chhun was sentenced to 24 months in jail, while Nimol and Kanika were sentenced to 20 months. Together, the three were ordered to pay 400 million riel, almost $100,000, in damages to the national border committee. They were also handed court fines of 2 million riel each, or about $500.
The three defendants reacted to the court’s decision by shouting that the verdict was unjust.
“It is injustice,” Chhun spoke out in the courtroom. “It is implemented based on a plan and order from the ruler. The court is under the influence of a politician, so the court cannot find justice for me.”
Chhun repeatedly clashed with judges and prosecutors during his trial this year, frequently objecting to the legal basis of the case against him.
Government lawyer Koun Saroeun said by phone on Wednesday that the verdict had restored “honor” to the border committee, though it had asked for higher compensation.
“As the government lawyer representing the committee, we gained back our honor and with this. We can accept it is not a problem,” Saroeun said. “For me, the [award for] damages is not really suitable yet, but we will not oppose or be disappointed over the court’s decision.”
Choem Sophal, 58, the mother of Kanika, said outside the court that her daughter had simply been concerned about injustices in society.
“[We] are the same Khmer. There should be an understanding, and she has not committed any serious mistake. And the word ‘incitement, incitement.’ I hate that word the most, incitement,” Sophal said.
She asked the court to release her daughter so she can come back home and restart her business as before.
Ouk Chhayavy, president of CITA, told reporters outside the court that the verdict was politically motivated.
“The court’s decision to sentence Rong Chhun today is a threat to the younger generation to abandon their studies, stop being aware of the country’s social issues, because those who sacrificed for the nation and society were imprisoned,” Chhayavy said.
She condemned the court system and said these decisions make people lose their trust in the judiciary.
Defense lawyer Choung Chou Ngy said the court had ruled without sufficient evidence.
“There is no exact evidence showing that my clients had committed an incitement offense,” Chou Ngy said. “I will meet with my clients to discuss the right to appeal.”
In February, Khmer Win Party leader Suong Sophorn was also sentenced to 20 months in jail and ordered to pay 2 billion riel, or about $500,000, to the border committee for protesting in support of Chhun last year.
Chhun’s trial began in January, with two more hearings in February and a fourth and final session held after a Covid-19 delay on July 30.
On social media, U.S. ambassador Patrick Murphy said the conviction of “respected union leader Rong Chhun” raised serious questions about freedom of speech protected in the Constitution “and essential to the functioning of a democracy.”
“The judicial system should not be abused to silence peaceful activists,” he said.
British ambassador Tina Redshaw also said on social media that she was “seriously concerned and disappointed” about Chhun’s sentencing.
“Freedom of expression is protected in Cambodia’s constitution and the judiciary shouldn’t be used to curtail it. Strong governments are open to hearing and engaging with a range of views from all of society,” she said.
Updated at 2:15 p.m. with additional comments.