(New York) - A Cambodian court's closed-door conviction and sentencing of the opposition leader Sam Rainsy and two others takes Prime Minister Hun Sen's campaign of persecution of critics to a new extreme and highlights government control over the judiciary, Human Rights Watch said today.
On January 27, 2010, the Svay Rieng provincial court convicted Rainsy and two villagers, Meas Srey and Prom Chea, on charges of racial incitement and destroying demarcation posts on Cambodia's border with Vietnam. Rainsy, who was in Paris, was tried in absentia and sentenced to two years in prison and fined 8 million riels (approximately US$2,000). Meas Srey and Prom Chea were each sentenced to one year in prison for destroying public property. The court also ordered the three to pay 55 million riels (approximately US$13,000) in compensation for the removal of border markers with Vietnam.
"The Cambodian government's relentless crackdown on critics continues apace in 2010," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Hun Sen seems intent on reversing the political pluralism that has been created over the past two decades."
The cases were brought after Rainsy and local villagers pulled six temporary border markers from the ground in Chantrea district of Svay Rieng. Local villagers alleged that the border markers represented an attempt by Vietnam to encroach on Cambodian land, a longstanding claim of Rainsy and his party.
The trial did not meet international standards for a fair trial, Human Rights Watch said. The lawyer for Meas Srey and Prom Chea said the court refused to consider defense evidence. By trying Rainsy in absentia, the court denied him his rights to defend himself and to examine the evidence against him. The trial was closed to journalists, human rights organizations, and the general public.
The court was surrounded by a heavy police presence, which observers say was intended to intimidate defense counsel and influence the court's ruling - a common feature of political trials in Cambodia. Svay Rieng provincial court has a long history of politically motivated rulings.
On January 6, Hun Sen, who has long exercised an iron grip over the courts, made the outcome of the trial clear. He announced that he would not request a pardon for Rainsy if he was found guilty. "This time I would like to declare ... there is no [pardon]; after the court convicts, let it be," Hun Sen said during an inauguration ceremony for a stretch of National Road 1 in Kandal province.
"Any hopes of slowing Hun Sen's assault on the political opposition now depends on the donor community, which props up the government financially," Adams said. "This political trial should make donors recognize the gravity of the situation."
Senior government officials have repeatedly brought politically motivated cases against Rainsy in recent years. His immunity as a member of parliament was lifted in February 2009 after Hun Sen filed a criminal defamation complaint against him for accusing Hun Sen of corruption. Rainsy's immunity was restored after his party paid a US$2,500 fine. On November 19, his immunity was lifted again for the border markers case.
Rainsy still faces a defamation complaint filed in 2009 by the Phnom Penh municipal governor, Kep Chuktema, after Rainsy allegedly said in a speech in May that Kep Chuktema was involved in vote-buying.
The most recent attempt to jail Sam Rainsy came in December 2005, when he was sentenced to 18 months in prison on transparently political charges. Rainsy was out of the country at the time. Under international pressure, Hun Sen agreed to a royal pardon in February 2006.
From the time he created his political party in 1995, Rainsy has been subject to assassination attempts, threats, intimidation, criminal cases, and civil court cases. On March 30, 1997, a grenade attack on a political rally he was addressing killed at least 16 people and wounded 150. Rainsy's life was saved when the full force of the blast hit one of his bodyguards. Hun Sen's bodyguard unit has been implicated in the attack.
At least 10 government critics were prosecuted for criminal defamation and disinformation based on complaints by government and military officials during 2009. Criminal defamation, disinformation, and incitement lawsuits were also filed against two members of Parliament from the opposition Rainsy Party, Mu Sochua and Ho Vann, and a youth activist, Soung Sophorn.