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Cambodian Supreme Court orders retrial for autistic teen son of opposition activists

Cambodia’s Supreme Court ordered the Court of Appeals to retry the case of Kak Sovanchhay, the autistic teenage son of opposition activists, who was last year sentenced to eight months in prison for incitement and insulting public officials.

Kak Sovannchhay, 17, is the son of Kak Komphear, a jailed senior official of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). 

He was arrested at his home in Phnom Penh on June 24, 2021, over a Facebook post and voice messages in which he was critical of the government in response to someone calling his father a traitor.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced him on Nov. 1, but credited him four-and-a-half months for time served and commuted the remainder of his sentence, thereby allowing his release a little more than a week later. Additionally the court ordered he remain under judicial supervision for two years.

He appealed the conviction but it was upheld on March 14, 2022.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday accepted the facts from the appellate trial but rejected the conviction and six conditions set on Kak Sovannchhay while under judicial supervision.

Prum Chantha, Kak Sovannchhay’s mother, told RFA’s Khmer Service that her son’s imprisonment was a threat from the government because her family continues to promote democracy.

She said the Court of Appeals should drop the sentence because her son, who was only 16 at the time of his arrest, was a child. Additionally the sentence leaves a mark on his record that could seriously affect his future.

“First, it affects his opportunities to learn, second he gets discrimination, and third, when he goes to find work, his name will be associated with the conviction, so it is a very serious punishment,” said Prum Chantha.

“He is just a minor and he has a disability,” she said, referring to his autism. “He is very young.”

Kak Sovannchhay’s lawyer Sam Sokong told RFA he believes the verdict is a violation of his client’s human rights.

“I urge the authorities as well as the Royal Government to consider the case of this child and to consider the interests of the child as enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of the Child and other rights related to children’s rights,” he said.

Based on Cambodia’s Penal Code and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Cambodia is a party, judges should be highly considerate and refrain from convicting children, opting for rehabilitation or education instead of imprisonment, Sam Sokong said.

Am Sam Ath of the local Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (Licadho), a local NGO, told RFA that he believes the Supreme Court handed the case back to the appellate court because it is skeptical about certain aspects of the law and how they were applied in Kak Sovannchhay’s case.

He urged the Court of Appeals to retry the case as soon as possible and drop all charges.

“We look at first the interests of the child,” he said. “Secondly, this child has a chronic disability called autism, and thirdly, if we look at the dialogue in social media used to convict him was a private conversation,” he said.

Kak Sovannchhay had been previously arrested in October 2020, then in April 2021, two men attacked him with bricks while he was driving a motorbike, leaving him with a fractured skull. Police never found either attacker.

The conviction and sentence of an autisitic child was neither necessary nor proportionate,  a May 2022 report on the trial by the American Bar Association said.

“Sovannchhay’s conviction further shows the lengths to which the Cambodian government will go to silence dissenting voices as well as the urgent need to reform Cambodia’s ‘incitement’ law, which has been a crucial tool in the authorities’ crackdown on civil society,” the report said. 

Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.