Sourn Serey Ratha, head of the tiny Khmer Power Party, was sentenced on Friday to five years in prison over Facebook posts critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen and military leaders, just a day after his snap trial on incitement charges.
Nai Chariya, Mr. Serey Ratha’s wife, who hugged him after the verdict and cried on his shoulder, decried the verdict as an injustice that curtailed free speech and said it would be appealed.
“I will continue to protest to find him justice,” she said.
Mr. Serey Ratha was branded a terrorist by the government in 2013 and sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison. He returned to the country two years later after he was granted a royal pardon with no explanation.
On Friday, Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Ros Piseth also ordered Mr. Serey Ratha, 43, to pay a fine of 10 million riel, or about $2,500, on the charges of “inciting military personnel to disobedience, demoralization of the army and incitement to commit felony.”
A frequent government critic, Mr. Serey Ratha was arrested on August 13 in the wake of a brief border dispute with Laos that saw armored vehicles paraded around Phnom Penh’s Independence Monument and Mr. Hun Sen fly into Vientiane to negotiate a resolution.
His scathing Facebook posts criticized those actions. “The marshal orders the troops to be ready to attack, gives an ultimatum to his foe, but bows down his head and enters his adversary’s barracks asking for negotiation,” he wrote.
Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Sucheat said last week that authorities apprehended Mr. Serey Ratha because he had disparaged all Cambodian troops. “He was arrested because he looked down on Cambodian people very badly,” he said.
National Police chief Neth Savoeun said that Mr. Serey Ratha was arrested because his comments incited soldiers to disobey commanders’ orders.
Defense lawyer Sok Sam Oeun said the sentence was too severe for the allegations and trampled on his free speech rights.
Ms. Chariya decried the sentence and the political atmosphere that lead to it.
“I think that our political environment is being more restricted on political expression, making people afraid to express their opinions,” she said. “I don’t want the democracy in our country to move backward, therefore, we have to protest. As human being, we have rights to expression.”
Speaking to reporters outside the courthouse, acting KPP president Soung Sophorn said the case against Mr. Serey Ratha was politically motivated. As for the KPP, even though the head of the party is jailed, he said he would not be frightened and would remain outspoken and critical of the government.
“We do it for the nation, not for an individual,” he said. “When the Cambodian nation, the people of Cambodia still suffer, the nation still needs us. We are still courageous, we will still sacrifice, even sacrificing our lives.”
(Additional reporting Ouch Sony)