Khmer-American dissident Sourn Serey Ratha, who sought to inspire a “rose revolution” after last year’s disputed national elections, defended himself against a nearly year-old charge of incitement in absentia Wednesday at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
Mr. Serey Ratha is president of the U.S.-based Khmer People Power Movement (KPPM), which labels itself a political group but stands accused by the government of aiming to topple Prime Minister Hun Sen in a bloody coup. The post-grad student admits to wanting to end Mr. Hun Sen’s regime, but through a peaceful, Arab Spring-style uprising.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged him with incitement to commit a felony in August, also in absentia, for orchestrating a plan to hand out 1,000 yellow roses to police and soldiers deployed across the city at the time along with stickers calling on them to “turn your guns against the despot.”
Four people were arrested in Phnom Penh at the time for allegedly attempting to carry out the plan and were also charged with incitement, but the court dropped their cases the following month.
In a statement read out at his trial Wednesday, Mr. Serey Ratha said the message on the stickers carried no criminal intent.
“It is not meant to incite a crime, but it can make police and the Cambodian people join each other,” his message read.
Mr. Serey Ratha has in the past explained that the “despot” in the message was a direct reference to Mr. Hun Sen.
On Wednesday in court, however, his lawyer, well-known rights defender Sok Sam Oeun, argued that it meant no such thing.
“Sourn Serey Ratha did not use the word ‘despot’ against any one person or the government or any political party; it was aimed at bad people,” he said, without explaining who those bad people were.
“There is not enough evidence to inculpate Sourn Serey Ratha,” he added.
But the prosecution argued that the message was clearly intended to see Mr. Hun Sen toppled and to incite violence.
“The message is not a normal message,” said Major Hin Sokheng, Phnom Penh deputy penal police chief. “It is a message…to give yellow roses to police, military police and soldiers so that they turn their guns against the government.”
By having police turn their guns against the despot, Mr. Serey Ratha has claimed that he meant security forces should protect people against the violence directed at them by the state, not to simply attack the state.
Contacted in Washington, D.C. immediately after the trial, Mr. Serey Ratha again insisted he was innocent of the incitement charge but believed he would be convicted in what he considered a politically motivated case.
“The court is under pressure from Hun Sen and it will not give me justice,” he said. “The result is ordered from Hun Sen.”
Mr. Serey Ratha said his group was registered in the U.S. and would not have been allowed to do so if it were a terrorist organization as the prime minister claimed.
He challenged the Cambodian government to sue him in the U.S. where he believed he was sure to get a fair trial but said he would still appeal if the Phnom Penh Municipal Court finds him guilty.
Mr. Serey Ratha said a conviction would also not stymie his mission to one day see Mr. Hun Sen removed from power—peacefully.
“We try to free the Cambodian people from communism, so the mission of the KPPM does not stop,” he said.
Judge Top Chhun Heng said he would render his verdict this morning.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)
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