The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday convicted self-exiled dissident Sourn Serey Ratha of incitement, plotting and obstructing elections, while three alleged co-conspirators were also convicted of plotting and obstructing elections.
The four were sentenced to between five and seven years in jail for the charges, which stem from their efforts to hand out flowers and T-shirts amid the turmoil of the 2013 elections. Rights group Licadho said the case against the men, who prosecutors said all belonged to a dissident group called the Khmer People Power Movement (KPPM), was politically motivated.
“We…decide to sentence Sourn Serey Ratha to seven years in jail for incitement to commit a felony, plotting and obstructing the people from voting, and fine him 25 million riel [about $6,250],” Presiding Judge Top Chhun Heng announced to the court.
Mr. Serey Ratha, who lives in the U.S. and travels frequently to Thailand, was tried in absentia and remains abroad. The other three men are being held in custody and will begin serving their sentences. Seng Sok Meng was sentenced to six years in jail. Serey Bunlong and Um Phearun were each sentenced to five.
The three imprisoned men were tried over KPPM T-shirts they were transporting for distribution in Battambang province in 2013 bearing the group’s logo and a message urging people not to vote in the upcoming national election. They were also carrying other KPPM-marked goods, including watches and radios.
Mr. Serey Ratha, who arranged for the shirts and other items to be printed, was also convicted of incitement for attempting to have 1,000 yellow roses handed out to police and soldiers around Phnom Penh in the aftermath of the disputed elections. The roses were meant to be accompanied by stickers urging the security forces to “turn your guns against the despot,” a reference to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The dissident Cambodian openly admits to wanting to inspire an Arab Spring-style uprising to oust Mr. Hun Sen from power, but rejects the use of violence. He says his appeal to soldiers and police was meant to inspire them to protect the public from the prime minister’s human rights abuses.
Speaking from Bangkok immediately after the verdict, Mr. Serey Ratha once again professed his innocence and said he would appeal.
“I never commit any crime…. This guilty [verdict], I do not accept it,” he said. “This trial is not justice for me, not only for me but my activists in the jail.”
As he left the courtroom after the sentencing, Mr. Bunlong said he, too, would appeal.
“This decision is unreasonable and unjust because I was just delivering T-shirts and radios,” he said. “I can’t accept it and I will appeal.”
During the two-day trial, Mr. Bunlong and Mr. Sok Meng admitted to transporting the packages of KPPM paraphernalia but said they had no idea what the parcels contained, and denied being part of Mr. Serey Ratha’s group. Mr. Phearun denied delivering any of the packages or being a part of the KPPM.
Sok Sam Oeun, the lawyer for the four men, said his clients were only exercising their constitutional rights.
“It shows that in Cambodia there is no freedom of expression, because expression has become plotting,” he said of the verdict.
Am Sam Ath, Licadho’s technical supervisor, who attended the trial, said the government presented no credible evidence of a crime against the men and that the case was politically motivated.
“The people going to jail are innocent,” he said. “We say, ‘Please stop using the people as political tools.’”
It was not immediately clear if Cambodia planned to ask Thailand to detain and extradite Mr. Serey Ratha. Officials at the Interior Ministry either declined to comment or could not be reached.
Despite the case against him, Mr. Serey Ratha is in the midst of attempting to register a political party in Cambodia, the Khmer Power Party. He said Wednesday that he would press ahead with the application because he had not yet exhausted his avenues of appeal against the verdict.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)