A Phnom Penh court has convicted and sentenced seven former opposition activists in absentia for Facebook posts accusing Prime Minister Hun Sen of hiding Covid-19 deaths in 2020 and other posts about his time as a former Khmer Rouge district commander.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court tried the seven activists — all of whom are overseas — in late August and announced its verdict for incitement on Thursday. The activists, who are former members of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, were sentenced to 18 months in prison and have to pay around $500 in fines each.
Judge Ouk Reth Kunthea also issued arrest warrants against the seven: Nou Sothea, who lives in Canada; Pech Sambo, from France; and Rin Roath, Run Chanthy, Mao Vibol, Sim Sophea and Neang Sokhun, all of whom live in Thailand.
During the trial on August 26, Chan Darith, the National Police’s bureau chief for investigations, said the seven activists had posted fake information about Covid-19 in March 2020, including that Hun Sen was concealing deaths caused by the virus. The police pointed to a post from Sothea claiming Hun Sen had a grudge against the ethnic Cham community in relation to members of the community who had returned from a religious festival in Malaysia and had tested positive for Covid-19.
The six others, police said, had posted similar content on social media and that if action wasn’t taken they “would have caused chaos in society.”
Rin Roath, one of the people convicted on Thursday, said the police would routinely send court orders to his parents’ home but that he didn’t not get a notification about the court trial.
The convictions showed that the government was using the courts to suppress free expression, he said, and that he rejected the conviction.
“I will not ask my lawyer to appeal this verdict because I don’t have hope in the court,” he said. “I think this is a politically motivated case and no matter whether I appeal, I still will not be able to win or get justice.”
Roath sought the services of opposition lawyer Sam Sokong, who said on Thursday that he did not attend the trial because he had not received a formal request from the defendants.
“I think the verdict to sentence [them] to 18 months in prison is heavy, and regarding the trial, my clients have not got information or summonses for the trial. Even though they are overseas, they have clear addresses here,” he said.
Mao Vibol, another defendant, said the court’s verdict was based on the decision of a politician.
“[Even if] we appealed it won’t get us anything in return,” he said.
Cambodian courts have tried hundreds of activists, former politicians and supporters linked to the CNRP on a raft of charges. Currently, more than 130 defendants are facing trials for charges like incitement.
Chin Malin, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson, said that once an arrest warrant was issued it should generally be implemented immediately by the competent authorities and based on the court’s procedures.
He said the country would use all means to bring back people convicted by the courts using cooperation with friendly countries and diplomacy.
“The procedure to bring the offenders who have escaped to other countries after sentencing is done through agreements in the criminal field, through diplomatic mechanisms and cooperation between friendly countries as well as regional cooperation,” Malin said.
CNRP leader Mu Sochua wanted to return to the country earlier this year to face trial on a number of charges including plotting an attack against the country, but the Cambodian government refused to issue her a visa. The government had canceled her and other senior opposition leaders’ Cambodian passports.
The government extradited Sam Sokha, a resident of Kampong Speu, in 2018 from Thailand after she was convicted for throwing a shoe at a CPP billboard with Hun Sen’s image. A fixer working for RT news agency in December 2018 was also arrested in Thailand and extradited after the fixer had assisted on a documentary about child sex trafficking in Phnom Penh.