Union Leader, Youth Activist and Former CNRP Member Condemned to Jail Terms and Fines

A policeman looks on as prisoners including prominent union leader Rong Chhun arrive in a truck at Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh on August 18, 2021, as Chhun faces charges of "incitement" over statements on land rights along the country's disputed border with Vietnam.

The verdict was dictated by politicians, Chhun said

PHNOM PENH--The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Aug. 18 sentenced prominent union leader Rong Chhun to 24 months in prison, youth activist Sar Kanika and former opposition-party member Ton Nimol to 20 months in prison on charges of incitement.

They also were each fined 2 million riels ($500) and ordered to jointly pay 400 million riels ($100,000) in damages to the Cambodia Border Committee as the plaintiff in the case.

Sam Sokong, their defense lawyer, said that Chhun, Kanika and Nimol will file an appeal against the court verdict. "They understand that this decision does not provide them justice," he said.

The arrest of Chhun, a representative of the Cambodian Watchdog Council and president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, was prompted when he led a team to inspect the land along the Cambodian Vietnamese border in July 2020. He was apprehended a few days later after he had issued a statement alleging that irregularities during the negotiations between the two countries had caused Cambodians living along the border to lose land.

Kanika, a member of the youth group Khmer Thavrak, was arrested in August 2020 during a peaceful protest calling for Chhun’s release. Nimol, who had been a Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) candidate in the 2017 commune elections, was arrested in October 2020 during a gathering in front of the Chinese Embassy in Phnom Penh.

Ma Chetra, a senior media official with the Cambodian Youth Network and who was in the courtroom during the sentencing, said that after the verdict had been heard, Chhun shouted in court that the court was a chess piece manipulated by politicians who had influenced the decision and that the sentence had been issued according to the plans of those in power,

Representatives of Australia, Japan, Sweden, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations attended the sentencing.

In a message on the US Embassy Twitter account, US Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy wrote after the sentencing that “[t]he conviction of respected union leader Rong Chhun raises serious questions about freedom of speech protected in Cambodia’s constitution and essential to the functioning of a democracy.

“The judicial system should not be abused to silence peaceful activists,” Murphy said.

According to Chetra of the Cambodian Youth Network, as soon as Rong Chhun had arrived in the courtroom, he had called on the diplomats who have monitored his case to intervene regarding the overcrowding in prisons, saying that this makes it impossible to implement the dos and don’ts measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and especially the Delta variant. Data on coronavirus cases in the country’s prisons has not been released by the authorities.

According to the human rights organization Licadho, 19 activists, artists and human rights defenders were arrested in the month and a half following Chhun’s arrest, with many of them facing charges of incitement that carries sentences of up to two years in prison. At least 24 human rights defenders are currently in prison, Lichado added on Aug. 18.

Local NGOs on Aug. 10 launched a campaign calling for the release of Cambodian activists and human rights defenders who have been jailed and, in some cases, convicted for speaking out on environmental issues.

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