The Appeal Court on Friday upheld a 20-month sentence against former CNRP president Sam Rainsy over his claim that the ruling party had orchestrated last year’s murder of popular political analyst Kem Ley.
The verdict on defamation and incitement charges moved forward in spite of the absence of both Mr. Rainsy—who went into self-imposed exile in France in 2015—and his lawyer.
“The court cannot wait or delay the hearing,” Presiding Judge Nhoung Thol said, citing a Code of Criminal Procedure article that allows for a verdict in absentia. “The court has decided to uphold the municipal court verdict.”
In March, Mr. Rainsy was sentenced to the 20-month term and a fine of 10 million riel, or about $2,500, in addition to a symbolic request from Prime Minister Hun Sen for compensation of 100 riel, or about $0.025.
The case stems from the repeated claim by Mr. Rainsy that Kem Ley’s point-blank shooting in a Caltex gas station in July of last year was “an act of state-sponsored terrorism.”
Judge Thol also ordered that a video clip of an interview of Mr. Rainsy by Radio Free Asia in which he made the claim, as well as a screenshot of a speech in France in which it was allegedly reiterated, be shown to the court. Hun Sim Hak, an officer from the Interior Ministry’s technical and science department, confirmed it was Mr. Rainsy.
According to Mr. Hun Sen’s lawyer, Ky Tech, this confirmation incriminated Mr. Rainsy for having “exaggerated to the Cambodian people.”
“If the government or Samdech Hun Sen are the killer, where is Sam Rainsy’s evidence to prove his claims?” he asked.
Contacted later, Mr. Rainsy’s lawyer Sam Sokong said the judge had acted illegally by ruling on the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentence without him and his client, as Mr. Rainsy had never received a court summons.
“We are unhappy with the Phnom Penh court sentence,” he said.
According to Mr. Rainsy, however, he and his lawyer had received a summons and decided that attending the hearing was futile.
“With this Kangaroo Court the verdict was a foregone conclusion and there was no need for my lawyer to waste his time,” he said in an email. “I maintain that the Hun Sen government was behind Kem Ley’s murder in broad daylight and its subsequent cover-up because nobody else would have been able to perpetrate this act of state terrorism whose patterns have been observed on too many occasions.”
“I made the accusation on my Facebook page where over 100,000 people shared my opinion through their ‘likes,’” he said. “It should be a lawsuit filed by Hun Sen against the public.”
Last week, a U.S. court ordered oil giant Chevron, which owns Caltex, to turn over documents and information relating to Kem Ley’s murder, in a move that Mr. Rainsy said could potentially clear his name in the defamation case.
Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Presiding Judge Nhoung Thol cited a Criminal Code article that allows for a verdict in absentia.
(Additional reporting by Janelle Retka)