Cambodia’s main opposition party leader was convicted in absentia yesterday and sentenced to 10 years in prison for a politically sensitive comment about a border dispute that critics say is another example of the government’s intimidation of its opponents.
Sam Rainsy, who is living in exile in Paris, was convicted of spreading false information about a border dispute with Vietnam. The lawsuit was filed in February after several comments by Rainsy, who had questioned whether the border was incorrectly marked by the government to Cambodia’s advantage.
The conviction is the second this year against Sam Rainsy, who heads the sole opposition party in parliament and is a fierce, longtime critic of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
In January, a court sentenced Sam Rainsy to two years in prison for a political protest in which border markers were uprooted on the frontier with Vietnam. He led the protest last year to dramatize his claim that Vietnam is encroaching on Cambodian territory, an issue he often raises to garner public support.
Hun Sen was installed after a Vietnamese invasion that ousted the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. He is sympathetic to Hanoi, while part of Sam Rainsy’s appeal comes from pandering to traditional anti-Vietnamese sentiment common among Cambodians who don’t trust their much larger neighbor.
Yesterday’s verdict was read out publicly at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, though the trial itself was closed to the public.
“The acts committed by the offender seriously affected the honor of the government,” Judge Ke Sakhan said.
The judge also ordered Sam Rainsy to pay 60 million riels (US$14,000) in compensation for the government’s legal fees and another fine of 5 million riels.
Sam Rainsy could not immediately be reached for comment in Paris, but his party called the ruling politically motivated.
“Everybody knows the court is only following the orders of the government,” said Son Chhay, chief whip of the Sam Rainsy Party. “There was never a proper investigation ... What the ruling party is doing is destroying the foundations of democracy in this country.”
Hun Sen described Sam Rainsy’s comments earlier this year as treachery. The prime minister said that Cambodia already has a volatile border dispute with Thailand on its northern and western frontiers, so causing trouble with Vietnam could open up a potential second area of confrontation.
Hun Sen’s government has repeatedly been accused of filing lawsuits to intimidate critics in the opposition and the press.
Human Rights Watch has said the prime minister has “a long history of trying to muzzle Cambodia’s political opposition and undermine the independence of the legal profession.”
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