A Cambodian court has jailed prominent union leader Rong Chhun for two years – the maximum sentence – after finding him guilty of “incitement” over remarks he made about the Vietnam-Cambodia border last year.
Judge Li Sokha announced the decision during a brief hearing at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday that was attended by some international diplomats.
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Activists Sar Kanika and Ton Mimol, who were also accused of incitement, were also found guilty and jailed for 20 months each.
The three, who have been in custody since their arrest a year ago, were also ordered to jointly pay $100,000 to the government’s border committee.
“It’s so disappointing. This is a serious punishment, and the verdict did not render justice to my three clients,” said lawyer Sam Sokong, who added that Rong Chhun planned to appeal the ruling.
Rong Chhun was arrested on July 31 last year after accusing the government of “irregularities” in the demarcation of its eastern border with Vietnam, and some villagers had lost land as a result. The border is a sensitive issue fuelled by strong anti-Vietnamese feelings among some Cambodians.
Human rights groups have condemned the arrest of Rong Chhun, a veteran labour rights activist and the head of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, and called for his release.
Cambodia’s government under long-term leader Hun Sen has cracked down on the opposition and critical voices, outlawing the opposition party in the run-up to the 2018 elections and putting its leader on trial for treason.
A 2020 report from the United Nations human rights office found “civic and democratic space in Cambodia had been shrinking”, and the work of human rights and civil society organisations subjected to “undue interference, intimidation or harassment”.
Licadho, a human rights group, says 19 activists, artists and human rights defenders were arrested in the weeks following Rong Chhun’s arrest. Sar Kanika was detained a month after Rong Chhun at a peaceful rally calling for his release, while Ton Mimol was picked up at an October rally outside the Chinese embassy.
Rong Chhun denied the charges against him when he was put on trial in January, and his supporters were angry about Wednesday’s court ruling.
“The court’s decision to sentence Rong Chhun today is a threat to younger generations … to stop thinking about the nation’s problems and social issues,” Ouk Chhayavy, president of the Cambodia Independent Teachers’ Association, told reporters outside the court.