A Leader of Cambodia's Main Opposition Party Jailed for 18 Months for Bouncing Checks

Thach Setha, a prominent vice president of the country's main opposition, Candlelight Party, talks to media members near the Vietnam Embassy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Aug. 10, 2014. Photo: AP Photo/Heng Sinith, File

PHNOM PENH, A prominent leader of Cambodia’s political opposition was convicted and sentenced Thursday to 18 months in prison for issuing worthless checks four years ago, in a case that his party has called politically motivated.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued its verdict against Thach Setha, a vice president of the Candlelight Party, after finding that he had issued several bounced checks in 2019, said his lawyer, Sam Sokong.

The lawyer said the court also ordered Thach Setha to pay $33,400 to the company which filed the lawsuit accusing him of issuing bad checks. He called the verdict unacceptable and said he would meet Thach Setha soon to discuss filing an appeal.

The case is the first major legal ruling issued against government opponents since Hun Manet became the country’s new prime minister in August. He had been army commander, and succeeded his father Hun Sen, who stepped down after 38 years in power.

Thach Setha was arrested in January this year even though his Candlelight Party had sought to meet the plaintiff to discuss a settlement and promised to find a way to pay the money that Thach Setha owed.

Thach Setha was taken into custody ahead of Cambodia’s general election in July. His arrest was seen by government critics as part of a broader campaign to ensure that the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party would face no serious opposition in the polls.

The Candlelight Party, the only contender capable of mounting a credible challenge, ended up being barred on a technicality from contesting the polls by the National Election Committee. The election body, as well as the courts, are widely seen as being under the influence of the Cambodian People’s Party, which coasted to an easy election victory.

In addition to legal challenges, critics of the government have also faced intimidation and violence.

“Men with metal batons viciously attacked a dissident and his wife in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on September 12, 2023,” Human Rights Watch noted in a Tuesday statement.

“The attack shares similarities with assaults reported earlier in 2023 against members of the opposition Candlelight Party, which were never seriously investigated. It tests the new government of Prime Minister Hun Manet’s willingness to investigate and appropriately prosecute those responsible for abuses against its critics."

The Cambodian People’s Party has had an iron grip on power for decades and controls almost every level of government.

In recent years, the government has aggressively pursued legal action against its opponents, hindering their ability to operate freely, and sometimes hounding them into exile or jailing them.

In October last year, another Candlelight Party’s vice president, Son Chhay, was given a large fine after being found guilty of defamation for saying that the June 2022 local elections were unfair, alleging that the National Election Committee was biased in favor of the Cambodian People’s Party.

Lawyer Sam Sokong said his client Thach Setha is facing two more charges: incitement to commit a felony, punishable by imprisonment for six months to two years, and incitement to discriminate on the basis of race, religion or nationality, punishable by imprisonment for one to three years. The trial on those charges has been held in recent weeks and the verdict is set for Oct. 18.

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