Jailed Journalist Walks Free With Slashed Sentence

More than a year after he was swiftly detained, charged, tried and convicted by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on a disinformation charge, 41-year-old journalist Ros Sokhet walked free yesterday following a reduction in his two-year sentence.

Appeal Court Judge Pol Sam Oeun ordered his release Thursday, but did not supply a reason in court for his decision, which upheld the conviction.

In the aftermath of Mr Sokhet’s conviction rights workers used his case to underscore flaws in the country’s court system. On Friday Mr Sokhet reiterated his innocence and said that as a free man 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,” said Mr Sokhet as he left prison yesterday dressed in 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 advisor, Soy Sopheap.

In a court system where defendants can languish for months or years without a trial, Mr Sokhet’s case saw him arrested, charged and tried within 24 hours before the hearing was delayed so that Mr Sokhet could obtain legal counsel. The trial resumed the following week, and the court convicted Mr Sokhet concluding his 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 right 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 being 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 released from prison in April after serving nine months of a one year sentence for publishing articles alleging corruption in the government.

Mathieu Pellerin, a consultant for the 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 and said he only showed anonymous texts to the Interior Ministry, which led 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 have maintained the text 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.”


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