Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith on Wednesday reacted to concerns raised by the French Prime Minister over the controversial convictions of three French nationals, saying that their French citizenship was of absolutely no consequence.
French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault raised the cases of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy, Cambodian independent radio station owner Mam Sonando and French journalist Daniel Laine—all French citizens convicted in cases rights groups consider politically motivated—during a meeting with Prime Minister Hun Sen in Phnom Penh on Sunday.
During a press briefing on Tuesday, France’s ambassador-in-waiting, Serge Mostura, said that Mr. Ayrault—-who had been in the country to attend the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s funeral—had stressed the French nationality of the three men, and told Mr. Hun Sen that France was awaiting “positive future developments” regarding the cases.
But Mr. Kanharith on Wednesday dismissed the relevance of the men’s nationality and said the court cases were out of the government’s hands.
“For the government, these issues are under the jurisdiction of the courts and have nothing to do with politics or with French nationality,” he said in an email. “The two [Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sonando] were accused of criminal offenses, not involving political activity or journalistic work.”
The French Embassy did not respond to a request for comment on Mr. Kanharith’s remarks.
Mr. Rainsy, currently in self-imposed exile to avoid an 11-year jail sentence, was convicted for uprooting wooden markers along Cambodia’s unofficial border with Vietnam and for posting maps of the frontier online. Mr. Sonando, owner of one of the country’s few independent radio stations and a frequent government critic, was convicted of fomenting an alleged rural secessionist movement and is serving a 20-year sentence in Prey Sar prison.
Mr. Laine, also presently living in France, was convicted in absentia in 2010 of procuring prostitution in a case stemming from his work on a documentary about Cambodia’s sex trade.
Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann dismissed Mr. Kanharith’s remarks and said Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sonando’s cases were both blatantly political.
“Now, the U.S. and French governments, as well as the world, believe their cases are political issues and that the courts are just a tool for the government,” he said.
While attending a regional summit here in November, U.S. President Barack Obama urged Mr. Hun Sen to release Mr. Sonando and all other political prisoners, to move toward free and fair elections, and stressed the need for opposition parties to be able to operate.
After Mr. Sonando’s conviction on October 1, France’s Foreign Ministry said it “deplored” the decision and urged the court to re-examine the case.
Still, the government has continuously denied that Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sonando’s cases are politically motivated and have put their convictions solely in the hands of the court system.
Mr. Sonando’s supporters, however, say he is being punished for critical reports he delivered on the government through his popular Beehive Radio station. One of those stories Beehive Radio broadcast in June was about a dissident group of Khmer-Americans that had filed a crimes-against-humanity complaint against Prime Minister Hun Sen with the International Criminal Court at The Hague.
During Mr. Sonando’s trial in September, the prosecution’s case rested on the testimony of a few co-defendants who had their prison sentences suspended in exchange for implicating Mr. Sonando. The prosecution also made much of the fact that Mr. Sonando once attended a meeting of a dissident Cambodian-American group in the U.S.
Last week, Paris-based press advocacy group Reporters Without Borders condemned the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s recent decision to uphold its 2010 verdict against Mr. Laine and urged Interpol to withdraw the international arrest warrant it issued at Cambodia’s request. The government says it wants French authorities to arrest and prosecute Mr. Laine.