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Cambodia’s Supreme Court upholds 7-year sentence for opposition party activist

Cambodia’s Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld a lower court’s verdict to sentence a 70-year-old activist affiliated with a dissolved political opposition party to jail for seven years for treason, the man’s lawyer and relatives said.

Kong Sam An was arrested in September 2020 for an alleged plan to bring Sam Rainsy, the exiled former leader of the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), back to Cambodia.

The Tboung Khmum Provincial Court handed down the original sentence to Kong Sam An, who was the CNRP chief for Memot district. He has been detained in Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh since 2020.

Critics said Kong Sam An’s sentence is part of the government’s efforts to stifle opposition before local elections on June 5 and the general election in 2023 to ensure that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s party remains in power.

Sam Sok Kong, the activist’s lawyer, called the Supreme Court’s verdict unjust.

“I am very saddened by the Supreme Court’s decision,” he told RFA about presiding Judge Kong Srim’s ruling.

Kong Sam An’s daughter, Kong Moly, told RFA that her father did not commit any crime. She called for the charge against him to be dropped.

“I urge the government to talk and don’t regard us as enemy,” she said. “He is a gentle man, [and] he shouldn’t be unjustly detained. Please release him.”

In April, Eap Suor, Kong Sam An’s wife, visited her husband in prison and later told RFA that he is very ill from confinement in a crowded prison cell and from malnourishment.

Soeung Sengkaruna, spokesman for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (Adhoc), said the court’s verdict was politically motivated intended to persecute the opposition party.

“Justice has not been given to Kong Sam An,” Soeung Sengkaruna told RFA. “NGOs urge the ruling party, which is leading the government, to decrease the tension to avoid international criticism and open up the political space and human rights.”

The Tboung Khmum Provincial Court sentenced six other activists along with Kong Sam An on treason charges. They all received sentences of five to seven years in jail in February 2020, though some were released on bail, while others fled.

The Supreme Court banned the CNRP in November 2017 for its supposed role in an alleged plot to overthrow the government.

Key party figures were arrested as others fled into exile as part of a crackdown by Cambodia Hun Sen on his political opposition, NGOs and independent media outlets.

Hun Sen’s CPP went on to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.

Since then, the government has continued to target activists associated with the CNRP, arresting them on arbitrary charges and placing them in pretrial detention in overcrowded jails with harsh conditions.

Meanwhile, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court postponed the hearing of former CNRP leader Kem Sokha, who is accused of conspiring with a foreign power to topple the government, for one week. The new date for the hearing is May 11.

The former CNRP president was arrested in September 2017 over an alleged plot purportedly backed by the United States to overthrow the government of Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 35 years. The country’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP two months after his arrest.

Kem Sokha’s trial resumed in January after two years of delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Judge Koy Sao granted the delay based on a request from government attorney Cheng Penghap, who cited a previous business commitment as the reason.

NGOs criticized the court’s move saying the postponement would also delay the deliverance of justice to Kem Sokha.

Soeung Sengkaruna of Adhoc said the government lawyer did not provide details about his request for the delay, and that if the trial continues to drag on, Kem Sokha will not be able to participate in the upcoming commune elections.

“The delay has caused concerns over his right to get justice and political rights,” he said. “It will affect Kem Sokha’s freedom as a politician.”

Am San Ath of the Cambodian rights group Licadho urged a political solution though national reconciliation.

“If politicians have goodwill, then they can seek a way out of this deadlock to end political crisis for the sake of the country,” he said.

Translated by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.