The Court of Appeal yesterday upheld the convictions of self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy and two villagers for uprooting border posts in 2009, but ordered the immediate release of the villagers, who have been serving one-year prison sentences.
Judge Khun Leangmeng said the sentences of Svay Rieng farmers Prum Chea, 41, and Meas Srey, 40, were reduced because the two have families and no criminal histories. Mr Chea and Ms Srey were arrested on Dec 23 last year and have already served slightly more than their newly reduced sentences of nine months and 20 days.
“The Court of Appeal upheld the Svay Rieng Provincial Court verdict,” Judge Leangmeng said yesterday at the court. “Because the two villagers have never been charged before and they have poor families with children, the court reduced their sentences.”
Judge Leangmeng said the villagers were still responsible, along with Mr Rainsy, for paying court-ordered fines and compensation totaling 63 million riel, or about $14,841, for their roles in the border post incident.
Six temporary posts marking the border with Vietnam were uprooted during an October 2009 demonstration led by Mr Rainsy to protest what he claimed was territorial encroachment.
The judge found that “Mr Sam Rainsy exactly uprooted the six markers by pushing the villagers to move them” and that the villagers “had intention to damage the public property.”
Villager Mr Chea greeted the court verdict yesterday with joy. “I think that I am released now because I was in prison more than nine months now,” he said. “I am so happy to be released.”
Sam Sokong, the lawyer for Mr Chea and Ms Srey, said he accepted the verdict. “It is justice for them,” he said.
Court of Appeal prosecutor Nget Sarath confirmed after the verdict was read that the prisoners would be freed immediately.
While Mr Chea and Ms Srey were sentenced in January to one year for damaging public property, Mr Rainsy was given a two-year sentence for damaging public property and racial incitement.
His lawyer, Chuong Chuongy, said that the verdict “is not justice for my client because Mr Rainsy wanted to keep Cambodian territory.” He added that he was unsure if Mr Rainsy would appeal.
Mr Rainsy, who was also sentenced last month to 10 years in prison for forgery and disinformation charges related to his border claims, has been abroad since late last year.
Party spokesman Yim Sovann welcomed the two villagers’ release, but said Mr Rainsy would only return when there was a “political solution” to the case, which would include a pardon for him and an apology to the villagers, as well as a return of their land.
Mr Sovann said the party would not pay any compensation or fines. “We will not pay because we still think that we have done nothing wrong,” he said.
Observers yesterday urged a solution that would hasten Mr Rainsy’s return.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said the case stemmed “from the political difference.”
The government, he said, “must have political dialogue between the opposition and ruling party…and try not to use the courts to solve that problem.”
Mr Panha also encouraged transparency on border issues, calling the villagers “victims affected by…unclear border demarcation.