Moeung Sonn, president of the Khmer Civilization Foundation, was convicted in absentia and sentenced to two years in prison on Tuesday for disinformation for making critical comments in the media about a new lighting project at Angkor Wat.
Presiding Judge Chhay Kong of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court ordered the arrest of Mr Sonn, who has fled to France to avoid legal action, so the defendant can serve his sentence at Prey Sar prison.
Under the verdict and sentence, which were delivered by Judge Kong after a three-hour trial, Mr Sonn was also fined 7 million riel (about $1,750) and ordered to pay another 8 million riel (about $2,000) compensation to the government.
The government brought a lawsuit against Mr Sonn on June 2 over comments he made concerning a new lighting scheme at Angkor Wat. Lights had been affixed near the ceiling of the lower level of the temple to illuminate bas-reliefs for nighttime visitors. Mr Sonn criticized the new lights, saying that they were ugly and that the heat they generate could damage the 12th century temple. The government responded with a lawsuit, claiming disinformation and incitement.
As Judge Kong deliberated for 40 minutes following the trial Tuesday, government attorney Pal Chandara told reporters at the court that disinformation lawsuits over the same issue had already been filed against two Khmer-language newspapers largely thought of as being pro-government-Rasmei Kampuchea Daily and Kampuchea Thmei Daily.
“If [they] write wrong, how could they not be sued?” Mr Chandara said when asked why the government was suing the newspapers. “This is called the state of law, we have to sue all – sue the opposition newspapers and the pro-government newspapers.”
He added, however, that he didn’t know the details of the lawsuits against the two papers, as they had been filed by another government attorney, Doung Loeung.
An assistant to Mr Loeung who answered the attorney’s telephone Tuesday, said that his boss was busy exercising and could not speak with a reporter.
Both before and during the trial Tuesday, Mr Sonn’s lawyer, Sam Sokong, asked Judge Kong to delay the hearing on the grounds that the case had not gone through the proper investigative process.
A court clerk also read out a July 9 request for delay from Mr Sokong asking that the case be handled first by an investigating judge. “My client, Moeung Sonn, on April 23, 2009, didn’t say anything relating to Angkor Wat,” the request said, referring to the date of the news conference that the government had cited in its disinformation complaint.
Mr Sonn had only talked in the press conference about the need for compensation to be paid to market vendors at Preah Vihear temple who lost their stalls to a Thai rocket earlier this year, Mr Sokong’s request continued.
Mr Sokong added that he wanted more witnesses questioned and documents entered into the case file before the trial.
Deputy Prosecutor Ek Cheng Huot countered that the prosecution had enough evidence in the case, which he said was “not complicated.” Judge Kong apparently agreed and rejected the request for a delay.
Mr Cheng Huot added that that the exact date of the disinformation crime was May 26, not April 23 as initially indicated in the charge sheet, a mistake he attributed to a “computer error” by the prosecution.
“The prosecutor’s representative understands that the act of Moeung Sonn was false information dissemination with the intent of inciting to have chaos nationwide,” Mr Cheng Huot told the court, saying that comments about Angkor Wat are “dangerous and sensitive.”
“People didn’t know [about the lights], they didn’t pay attention, [but] when Moeung Sonn disseminated false information, they became angry,” he said.
During the trial, Judge Kong ordered a clerk to play a recording of an interview with Mr Sonn that aired on Radio Free Asia. In that interview, Mr Sonn said that the lighting and the electric wires installed at the temple looked disorderly and would be considered ugly by tourists. The clerk also read letters of concern about the lights written by Mr Sonn that were sent to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“It was the worry of my client as one citizen. He loves Angkor and asked for intervention from Samdech Prime Minister,” Mr Sokong said, adding that he didn’t see any chaos or negative reactions stemming from Mr Sonn’s comments.