Group Says Rainsy Case a Continuation of Gov’t Assault on Critics

The prison sentence handed out to opposition party leader Sam Rainsy and two Svay Rieng province villagers was branded a farce by New York-based Human Rights Watch on Friday, who said the action of the Cambodian courts demonstrated the continuing oppression of government critics.

The court’s sentencing of Mr Rainsy to two years in jail and the two villagers to one year in jail “takes Prime Minister Hun Sen’s campaign of persecution of critics to a new extreme and highlights government control over the judiciary,” Human Rights Watch said in the statement.

“The Cambodian government’s relentless crackdown on critics continues apace in 2010,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Hun Sen seems intent on reversing the political pluralism that has been created over the past two decades,” Mr Adams said in the statement.

“Any hopes of slowing Hun Sen’s assault on the political opposition now depends on the donor community, which props up the government financially,” Mr Adams continued.

“This political trial should make donors recognize the gravity of the situation.”

On Wednesday, the Svay Rieng Provincial Court found Mr Rainsy guilty, in absentia, of racial incitement and destruction of property for uprooting temporary, wooden demarcation pegs on the border with Vietnam. Mr Rainsy removed the pegs in an act of protest over the border demarcation process with Vietnam, which the opposition leader said was responsible for the loss of Cambodian territory.

Villagers Prum Chea and Meas Srey, who took part in removing the pegs, were also convicted of destruction of property and sentenced by the court to one year each in prison and a hefty fine

Now with a criminal conviction, Mr Rainsy, who is currently in self-imposed exile in France, can no longer legally retain his seat in the Cambodian parliament, though the SRP has said it will continue to back him as their party leader.

Human Rights Watch also said that Mr Rainsy’s trial did not follow due process.

“By trying Rainsy in absentia, the court denied him his rights to defend himself and to examine the evidence against him. The trial was closed to journalists, human rights organizations, and the general public,” the statement said.

At the courthouse on Wednesday, police officers prevented relatives of the accused, reporters and human right workers from attending the trial saying the hearing was by invitation only. Outside, police officers kept a close eye on reporters, occasionally photographing them and recording the reporters’ interviews.

Asked to comment on the Human Rights Watch statement, Bunyay Narin, spokesman for the Justice Ministry, hung up on a reporter and turned his phone off.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said Human Rights Watch had no right to criticize the Cambodian judicial system and should, instead, concentrate on cooperating with the government.

“The judgment from New York is not a reflection of what happened in Cambodia,” Mr Siphan said.

“This [case] is not an issue of freedom of expression. It is an issue of law and order,” he said.

Mr Siphan added that Mr Rainsy had been treated fairly and still retained the right to take the case to a higher court if he wished to appeal his sentence.

Embassies of donor countries had little to say on Mr Rainsy’s conviction when contacted Friday.

“We are watching the trial very closely,” said John Johnson, spokesman for the US embassy in Phnom Penh.

“If it is appealed we hope it is presided over in a transparent manner by an independent body,” he said, declining to comment further.

Yasuhiko Kamada, spokesman for the Japanese Embassy and British Ambassador Andrew Mace declined to comment. Australian Deputy Head of Mission Fiona Cochaud, said she had not seen the Human Rights Watch statement and would need to reflect upon it in order to provide comment.

Cheang Vannarith, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said he doubted the government intends to permanently remove Mr Rainsy from political life, and the existence of an opposition party validated Cambodia’s claim of being a multi-party democracy.

“The government needs an opposition to uphold a democratic system,” he said.

“It is thanks to [a democratic system] that Cambodia gets a lot of financial assistance,” he added.

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