More than a year after he was swiftly detained, charged, tried and convicted by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on a disinformation charge, journalist Ros Sokhet, 41, walked free yesterday following a reduction in his two-year sentence.
Appeal Court Judge Pol Sam Oeun ordered his release Thursday, but did not give a reason for his decision, which upheld the conviction.
Rights workers have used Mr Sokhet’s conviction to underscore flaws in the country’s court system. On Friday, Mr Sokhet reiterated his innocence and said he would appeal his conviction.
“I will appeal to the Supreme Court because the Appeal Court did not find justice for me, but just reduced my sentence,” Mr Sokhet said as he left prison yesterday wearing civilian clothes and looking fit.
The Municipal Court sentenced Mr Sokhet to two years in prison last November after convicting him of disseminating disinformation for sending disparaging text messages to media personality, and self-styled government adviser, Soy Sopheap.
In a court system where defendants can languish for months or years without a trial, Mr Sokhet was arrested, charged and tried within 24 hours before the hearing was delayed so Mr Sokhet could obtain legal counsel. The trial resumed the following week, with the court concluding that Mr Sokhet’s actions “affected public security.”
Mr Sokhet said a lack of independence in the court system overshadowed his case throughout, with Mr Sopheap’s purported ties to the government causing his conviction, and international pressure and media attention prompting his release.
The court “is not independent. It feared the critics from outside,” he said.
Members of the government have also lobbied on Mr Sokhet’s behalf, and earlier this month Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith wrote to Justice Minister Ang Vong Vathana asking for his help to release Mr Sokhet.
In January, UN Human Rights Envoy Surya Subedi met with Mr Sokhet and opposition newspaper editor Hang Chakra at Prey Sar prison to discuss their cases. Mr Subedi cited both cases in a report last month that criticized the judiciary as corrupt, incompetent and lacking independence.
“Similarly, the prosecution and imprisonment of journalists such as Hang Chakra, editor of the opposition newspaper Khmer Machas Srok, and another journalist, Ros Sokhet, should not take place in a normal functioning democracy as their actions have not undermined law and order or posed any threat to Cambodia’s national security interests,” he wrote.
Mr Chakra was pardoned and freed in April after serving nine months of a one-year sentence for publishing articles alleging corruption in the government.
Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant for rights group Licadho, yesterday criticized the court and expressed support for Mr Sokhet’s freedom.
“I think Ros Sokhet’s case is a good example of many things that are wrong with the court system in Cambodia,” he said, underlining political interference within the court system.
Appeal Court Prosecutor Hean Rith said he did not know the reason for Mr Sokhet’s release, but said the prosecutor’s office did not oppose the sentence reduction, and declined to explain why.
“The prosecutor general of the Appeal Court agreed to not appeal against the case, so Ros Sokhet can be free from prison,” he said.
He referred questions to Judge Sam Oeun, who could not be reached for comment.
Reached by telephone, Mr Sopheap reiterated earlier claims that he did not initiate legal action against Mr Sokhet. He said he merely showed anonymous texts to the Interior Ministry, leading to the case.
“I congratulate Ros Sokhet on his release from prison and I please offer blessing to Ros Sokhet to get good health for returning as a journalist again,” he said.
The charge against Mr Sokhet stems from four text messages he sent Mr Sopheap in October 2009 questioning whether the news anchor had extorted money from Ke Dara, the jailed wife of an adviser to National Assembly President Heng Samrin. Ms Dara was sentenced to 18 months in jail for firing a gun into the air during a traffic altercation.
Mr Sokhet and his lawyer say the messages caused no harm and were not publicly disseminated.
Mr Sokhet also said yesterday that he planned to spend some time with his elderly mother in Svay Rieng province before returning to Phnom Penh to apply for a license to launch a newspaper to be called “Anticorruption News.”