The Phnom Penh Municipal Court convicted and sentenced opposition-affiliated newspaper editor Hang Chakra to one year in prison on Friday after he was found guilty of spreading disinformation following a one-hour trial at which neither the accused nor his lawyer participated.
Reading out the verdict, Judge Din Sivuthy also ordered the arrest of Mr Chakra, the 55-year-old editor of Khmer Machas Srok newspaper, for publishing stories in April and May that were considered critical of Cabinet Minister Sok An in particular and other CPP officials in the government.
“The Phnom Penh Municipal Court decides: Sentence Hang Chakra, 55 years old, to 12 months and this punishment must be served in prison for the charge of disinformation,” Judge Sivuthy said in his verdict, which came after 15 minutes of deliberation.
The judge also imposed a $2,250 fine on the editor, which must be paid as compensation to the government.
Mr Chakra, who was not present in court and had requested a postponement to allow his lawyer prepare his defense, was arrested by police on Friday afternoon in Battambang province, provincial Police Chief Sar Thet said.
“I don’t know where he wanted to go,” Mr Thet said by telephone.
“He was looking to rent a house,” the police chief said, adding that Mr Chakra was already on his way back to prison in Phnom Penh.
Interviewed by telephone on Friday morning, Mr Chakra said that he would not flee, and branded the court the “puppet” of the government.
“I agree to go to prison with [the accompaniment] of journalists and NGO workers on Monday,” Mr Chakra said.
“I want to show that I won’t flee anywhere,” he said.
“This is very unjust for me as a journalist…. I still keep my stand that I have not committed any wrongdoing,” he said.
Friday’s trail began with Mr Chakra`s lawyer, Choung Chou Ngy, removing himself from the hearing after Judge Sivuthy denied his request to postpone the trial on the grounds that he had only received the case file 24 hours earlier, and hadn’t the time to prepare an adequate defense.
The judge responded saying that it was the lawyer’s own fault for not coming earlier to the court to photocopy the file, adding that a court clerk had notified Mr Chou Ngy that the documents were available.
“In order to guarantee that the trial is just, the delay is appropriate,” Mr Chou Ngy argued in court before the hearing started.
“A trial, in which my client and I didn’t have enough time to prepare, is rushed,” the lawyer argued, adding that Mr Chakra`s case wasn’t even investigated by an investigating judge.
“This is the fastest procedure [I have seen]. This rush is a benefit to the prosecutor’s representative and the plaintiff’s lawyer,” Mr Chou Ngy continued.
Over the lawyer’s protests, the judge ordered that the trial go ahead, saying that the court procedure, despite the lack of involvement of an investigating judge, was not wrong as the prosecutor had sent the case to trial directly.
Mr Chou Ngy then left his bench in protest and sat in the public gallery to observe the proceedings.
Getting the trial underway, Deputy Prosecutor Plang Sophal told the court that the editor had caused disputes within government circles by printing stories claiming that two deputy prime ministers, Sok An and Sar Kheng, who is also Minister of Interior, didn’t get along with each other.
The newspaper, the deputy prosecutor continued, had also caused political instability by printing the line “Sok An had always wanted to be the prime minister instead of Hun Sen.”
“There was no source to show that Sar Kheng and Sok An didn’t get along with each other,” Mr Sophal told the court, and branded the newspaper “irresponsible.”
“The news caused tremors in the government, it caused disputes,” he said.
Taking the floor, lawyer for the government Suong Chanthan defended the lawsuit against Mr Chakra, stating that it didn’t restrict the freedom of expression in the country, but ensured respect for the law.
“Suing is not a restriction on the freedom of expression, the government sued because it wants society to respect the law,” the lawyer said.
Mr Chanthan also said that the newspaper’s claims that Prime Minister Hun Sen had fired some government officials close to Sok An due to corruption were false.
The Club of Cambodian Journalists issued a statement on Friday deploring the jailing of yet another journalist.
“Imprisoning a journalist will scare other journalists from fulfilling their journalism profession and will affect press freedom in Cambodia,” the club said.
The CCJ also called on the court to allow Mr Chakra to defend himself legally, and not to keep him detained while doing so, which is a provision in the Press Law.
“Licadho strongly condemns the unjust verdict against Heng Chakra, which is another blow to freedom of expression in Cambodia. His one-hour trial by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court is a travesty of justice and yet another example of how Cambodia’s courts are used as a weapon to silence government critics,” Naly Pilorge, the director of the local right’s group, wrote in a statement on Friday.
“We hope the Court of Appeal will urgently consider this case and reverse the Municipal Court’s verdict. We believe that this case should have been dealt with under the 1995 Press Law, and not under the criminal code,” she said.
“This verdict once more highlights the judiciary’s subservience to the government. Without a truly independent judiciary, Cambodian democracy and the rights of citizens will never be assured.”