Facebook Death Threats Trial Suggests Double Standards

Even with no plaintiff to speak of, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday tried a 27-year-old migrant laborer over posts to his Facebook page threatening the life of the prime minister. Similar threats against opposition leader Kem Sokha last year were dismissed by authorities, who said they had no ability to investigate the case without a complaint being filed.

Presiding Judge Ly Sokleng confirmed on Monday that no complaint was filed in the case against Ven Sopheap, who also goes by Sam Sopheap and was initially named by officials as Sam Pheap. Mr. Sopheap was nonetheless arrested in October after returning from Thailand to his family’s home in Prey Veng province.

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Ven Sopheap is escorted out of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Judge Sokleng read out the content of two Facebook posts, which Mr. Sopheap confessed to posting and prosecutors say justify criminal charges of making a death threat and inciting discrimination, which together carry up to five years in prison and fines of up to 10 million riel, or about $2,500.

Along with one video, Mr. Sopheap wrote: “Hun Sen oy, today is the day of your death.”

In a comment on another video of Prime Minister Hun Sen paying a visit to the provinces, the defendant wrote: “Beheading Yuons is the duty of all Khmer children,” using an often derogatory term for Vietnamese people.

Claims that Mr. Hun Sen and fellow CPP leaders are puppets of the Vietnamese government have long been a feature of the most vitriolic criticism of the regime. In the short-lived “culture of dialogue” with the opposition CNRP, Mr. Hun Sen sought to make race-related criticism off-limits.

Mr. Sopheap asked the court for leniency, saying that he had only realized after the fact that his Facebook posts might be illegal. He said all of his comments had been copied from other accounts, though he could not recall which ones when pressed by the judge.

“In the beginning, I did not know about the law. But now I know my mistake,” Mr. Sopheap replied, when questioned by the judge about his actions. “I am very sorry that I did not know about the law and, without a good education, did not think too much about the significance [of my actions] under Cambodian law.”

Deputy prosecutor Sin Virak was not sympathetic to his plea.

“You uploaded material related to racism, incitement and death threats. Was it your idea, or did someone order you?” he asked the defendant.

“It was my own idea. No one ordered or advised me,” Mr. Sopheap said.

Mr. Virak asked Judge Sokleng, who is set to hand down a ruling on February 24, to convict the defendant.

After photographs appeared on Facebook in December showing ruling party activist Thy Sovantha holding a gun, along with a message saying some bullets were being saved for Mr. Sokha, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said arrests would only be possible if authorities received a complaint.

General Sopheak could not be reached yesterday to explain the contradiction presented by Mr. Sopheap’s case.

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