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(New York) - The Cambodian government should immediately release human rights defender Leang Sokchouen, Human Rights Watch said today. The Cambodian Appeals Court, on July 14, 2011, upheld his two-year prison sentence for peaceful political expression.

Sokchouen, a staff member of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (Licadho), was convicted on disinformation charges on August 30, 2010. The Appeals Court, in a decision that violates international fair trial standards, upheld his sentence but changed the charge to incitement. Sokchouen was not charged with incitement at his original trial and the charge was not raised during his Appeals Court hearing on June 30.

"The politicization and incompetence of Cambodia's courts are on full display in this case, in which an activist has been imprisoned simply for criticizing the government," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Sokchouen should never have been charged in the first place, but to have the charges changed on appeal with no opportunity to challenge them sets a new standard for arbitrariness. The government should immediately drop the charges and release him."

The Appeals Court judge, Pol Sam Oeun, without explanation, changed the charge to incitement under article 495 of Cambodia's new Criminal Code, which did not exist at the time of Sokchouen's alleged offense in January 2010. Under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Cambodia ratified in 1992, defendants shall have the right to examine the evidence against them and not be held guilty for an act that did not constitute a crime at the time it was committed.

Cambodian police arrested Sokchouen on May 29, 2010, for involvement in the production and distribution of anti-government leaflets in Takeo province in January 2010. He was held incommunicado for over 33 hours, despite numerous requests by his family and lawyer to visit him. At his August 2010 trial, Sokchouen was sentenced to two years in prison and a two million riel fine (US$500). Sokchouen's trial was marked by numerous procedural flaws as well as violations of fair trial provisions in Cambodian and international law. The prosecution did not present any in-court witness statements or credible evidence. The trial judge ignored compelling testimony raised in Sokchouen's defense.  

Human Rights Watch expressed concern about the conditions for human rights workers and organizations in Cambodia. The government of Prime Minister Hun Sen is preparing a law to regulate nongovernmental organizations that would give it the power to refuse registration and close nongovernmental organizations on vague and arbitrary grounds. Nongovernmental organizations are widely considered to be crucial both to delivering basic services and helping to protect fundamental rights in Cambodia.

"One of the few enduring gains from the massive United Nations peacekeeping mission 20 years ago was a vibrant civil society," Adams said. "With the imprisonment of a human rights activist on phony charges and the impending passage of a law aimed at giving the government the power to shut down civil society groups arbitrarily, those gains are under threat. Cambodia's international donors need to press Hun Sen and his government to change course." 

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