Civil Groups Call for Release of Charged Student Leader Koet Saray

Koet Saray, who is the president of the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association, was arrested on April 5 for “incitement to cause social chaos.” Photo: Khmer Student Intelligent League Association

PHNOM PENH – More than 50 associations and civil society groups seek the release of student leader and outspoken human rights activist Koet Saray and call for charges to be dropped, after he was arrested on April 5 for “incitement to cause social chaos.”

Koet Saray, who is the president of the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association, was accused of pushing people in Preah Vihear province to commit so-called illegal land encroachment and to engage in violent protests against the authorities, creating a detrimental image of the country, according to the spokesperson of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s prosecutor.

He said that Saray assisted citizens in escaping and hiding in the forest as they feared arrest and violence by the authorities in a long-running land dispute dating back to 2011. Provincial authorities said they were only asking for cooperation to settle the land conflict.

On March 21, Saray led four other youths to meet with people in Preah Vihear province's Kulen district who had fled into the forest. They said they had to hide to avoid police forces, after people from the area had been arrested in cases of so-called land encroachment over an Economic Land Concession granted to Seladamex company in 2011.

Saray posted interviews with the people on Facebook and filmed how they were living in the forest. He also gave an interview to Radio France International (RFI) Khmer to report about the situation.

“The suspect publicly spread false information, intending to fuel the anger and hostility against the government,” said the prosecutor of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.

The court decided to charge Koet Saray with “recidivism in a misdemeanor after a misdemeanor conviction” and “incitement to cause social chaos,” according to Articles 88, 494 and 495 of the Penal Code.

But actors of the civil society deny the accusations.

“The arrest was done without notice and clear information for Koet Saray and his family,” reads a joint statement issued on April 8 by 54 associations, communities, and civil society groups.

The statement says that the arrest and detention of Saray are part of a continual suppression of the freedom of expression and oppression of human rights and environmental activists. It constitutes a “serious violation” of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution, they added.

The group of support also said that giving interviews to journalists and putting the spotlight on a land dispute in Preah Vihear province shows that Saray cares about his fellow Cambodian citizens and only wants to shed light on their worries to the local authorities.

Heng Kimhong, the president of the Cambodian Youth Network, said the arrest and the accusation are unreasonable as Koet Saray was in the forest to learn and understand the hardship facing the fleeing residents, aiming to dig out the truth and appeal for suitable solutions.

“I think Koet Saray has no intentions to cause aversion and disorder,” he said. “He enjoys freedom of expression and only wants to help the people facing land dispute issues.”

The statement says that his expression should be considered as a helpful contribution to the authorities rather than incitement. “Moreover, arresting him ahead of the approaching Khmer New Year deprived him of his rights to gather with his family and relatives.”

Heng Kimhong said he requested relevant authorities to reconsider Koet Saray’s case and the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to drop charges against him and grant him freedom so that he can resume his advocacy work​​ and address social issues.

Koet Saray has been sent to pre-trial detention at Prey Sar Correctional Center 1 (M1).​​​​

In September 2020, Saray, who was in the monkhood at the time, was already sentenced to 20 months in prison and fined 2 million riel (about $500) for inciting serious social unrest. He was forced out of the monkhood and arrested along with the other eight people due to their advocacy to release the former prominent unionist Rong Chhun in Sept. 2020.

Saray served only a 14-month sentence with the remaining sentence suspended for two years, according to the criminal verdict issued on October 26, 2021. He was released on Nov. 2021.

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