Twelve men and one woman were found guilty of plotting to overthrow the government and sentenced to between five and nine years in prison after a fifteen-minute-long hearing on Friday. Rights groups denounced the verdicts as politically motivated and based on scant evidence as well as testimony extracted via torture.
After the hearing, the seven men present—six people were tried in absentia—shouted and threw their hands in the air in protest to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s judgment.
Presiding Judge Seng Neang said the court sentenced Thach Kongphuong, 38, Yin Yav, 56, Yorn Yoeub, 26, Khem Ma, 29 and Suon Phal, 53, to eight years behind bars. Yorn Kimsrun, 28, was sentenced to seven years in jail for plotting to provide a foreign nation with the means to carry out hostile acts against the Cambodian government. Suong Sithikun, 53, will be imprisoned for five years.
They were arrested by Thai authorities in March 2013, and deported to Cambodia.
The six people tried in absentia include Sam Serey, the Denmark-based founder of the Khmer National Liberation Front (KNLF), which last year was branded a terrorist organization by Cambodia’s government. The fugitives received generally longer sentences of between eight and nine years.
“Between 2009 to 2011, the Khmer National Liberation Front was created to act against the government,” Judge Neang said Friday. “They distributed leaflets calling for people to make chaos in society, and they used the land of Thailand to hide.”
“Based on an answer given by Yin Yav [during questioning], he said that they created the Khmer National Liberation Front to topple the government,” he continued.
“Based on the testimony of some suspects, coupled with evidence, the Khmer National Liberation Front was led by ringleader Sam Serey, who still is at large,” Judge Neang said. “The defendants are guilty of plotting to overthrow the nation.”
As his words rang out, the defendants, clad in orange prison garb, shouted that the verdict was unjust.
“This is so unjust, the Cambodian courts are not just,” shouted Mr. Kongphuong, adding that he would appeal the verdict. “Please, international and national organizations, help to intervene in our story, because we did not do anything,” he said.
Mr. Ma said his suffering was unjust, and that it was unfair to imprison him while “powerful people destroy forests and grab people’s land.”
Sam Sokong, the lawyer representing Mr. Phal and Mr. Kimsrun, said he wanted to know on what evidence they were convicted.
“They did not have the ability to topple the government because they did not have weapons, human resources or finances to do so,” he said, asserting that no evidence presented during the group’s March 28 trial suggested otherwise.
Six of the 13 are Khmer Krom, or “lower Khmer,” which refers to ethnic Khmer people who predominantly live in the southern part of Vietnam.
In a statement, the Minority Rights Organization (MIRO) said the trial had been “unfair and partial.”
This Cambodian group advocates for the rights of Khmer Krom and other ethnic minorities.
“MIRO rejects the court’s decision as it is based on fabricated evidence,” its statement reads. “All men confirmed during the court hearing that they were coerced into signing the statements of their interrogation and other documents during their examination at the Ministry of Interior.”
“Two of them were subjected to torture,” the group said. “These reports falsely claim that they had collaborated in bringing down the Government of Cambodia. All men were denied a legal representative during the interrogations.”
MIRO director Ang Chanrith attended Friday’s hearing. He said in the statement that the judges failed to consider whether or not the KNLF “advocates for violent actions.”
He said the verdict was political based on the fact that Prime Minister Hun Sen denounced the group last May. The MIRO leader charged that Friday’s verdicts were rendered “on political motives rather than the rule of law.”
The Society for Threatened Peoples also condemned the convictions. From their base in Germany, they branded Friday’s verdicts as “politically motivated arbitrary justice.”
“Obviously, the government intends to remove critics who call for human and minority rights as they represent a real threat to their leadership,” Judith Kunze, the Society’s Coordinator for Cambodia, said in the statement.
“Verdicts in Cambodia are often rendered in the interest of influential politicians and exhibit a blatant disregard for the rule of law,” she said. “We therefore demand the court to revise the verdict.”