Ahead of Trial, Alleged ‘Terrorist’ Denies Charges, Pursues Politics

Ahead of his trial at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court today, Cambodian-American dissident Sourn Serey Ratha this week again denied the sedition charges against him and urged the government to release his supporters now in detention.

In a letter sent from Bangkok and dated Tuesday, Mr. Serey Ratha, president of the U.S.-based Khmer People Power Movement (KPPM), also asked authorities to clear the way for him to register a political party.

In August last year, the court charged Mr. Serey Ratha with incitement for organizing the distribution of 1,000 yellow roses to police and soldiers in Phnom Penh, along with stickers urging them to “turn your guns against the despot,” a reference to Prime Minister Hun Sen, following the previous month’s disputed national election.

In July, the court changed the charge to the much more severe “plotting,” defined as planning to commit an attack, and added an incitement charge for Mr. Serey Ratha’s earlier printing of T-shirts with slogans urging people not to vote in the upcoming election.

The charges carry a combined maximum sentence of 12 years.

Mr. Serey Ratha, who lives in self-imposed exile, reiterated Wednesday that neither act constituted a crime.

“The charges have no basis and abuse my political rights as well as the freedom of the Khmer People Power Movement to participate in politics and of the people to support the Khmer People Power Movement,” he wrote.

“I deny the charges the court tries to put on me and the Khmer People Power Movement activists,” the letter says, going on to call for the release of three supporters who were arrested in Banteay Meanchey province last year for allegedly transporting the T-shirts he had had printed.

Mr. Serey Ratha said he would not attend today’s hearing, but would be represented by his lawyer, prominent human-rights attorney Sok Sam Oeun.

Contacted by telephone in Bangkok on Wednesday, Mr. Serey Ratha shed further light on his association with activist monk Luon Sovath, who was charged with plotting alongside the dissident earlier this month.

Mr. Serey Ratha said he sponsored Luon Sovath’s trip to the U.S. in 2011 and helped raise nearly $30,000 for the monk’s human rights work in Cambodia, but said they did not communicate after that.

He criticized the court for trying to paint the monk as a conspirator.

“The court in Cambodia is not fair for everybody, and the court [tries] to link anybody who used to be a friend with me,” he said.

Luon Sovath has said he met Mr. Serey Ratha once, on a trip to the U.S. in 2011, but was turned off by his political ambitions and talk of toppling the Cambodian government.

Luon Sovath was also summoned to today’s hearing, but requested a postponement because of prior plans to attend a religious event in South Korea. Lawyers for the monk Wednesday said they had not received a reply to their request, and had yet to decide whether they would attend the trial on his behalf.

Court officials could not be reached.

The prime minister has personally branded the KPPM president a terrorist and accused him of wanting to overthrow the government in a bloody coup. Mr. Serey Ratha has denied ever advocating violence, and says he wants to inspire an Arab Spring-style uprising that would force Mr. Hun Sen from power.

Mr. Serey Ratha has been attempting to register the KPPM as a political party in Cambodia, but says authorities are conspiring to block him from doing so.

He said officials in his home commune of Khnach Romeas, in Battambang province’s Bavel district, have been ignoring his request for a copy of his birth certificate, a necessary document for registering a new party.

Khnach Romeas commune chief Lam Vanny said that in May or June, a cousin of Mr. Serey Ratha approached him to ask for a copy of the birth certificate but he turned him down.

“Following the law on birth identification, if he [Mr. Serey Ratha] wants to copy the identification, he needs to come and do it himself,” Mr. Vanny said.

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