Official defends WFP guard verdict

Information Minister Khieu Kanharith yesterday denied that the speedy conviction of a World Food Program guard for distributing anti-government leaflets was an attack on freedom of expression, while foreign embassies said they were following the case.

Seng Kunakar was arrested Friday and tried and convicted Sunday morning of incitement to commit a felony, a misdemeanor under article 495 of the new penal code. He was given the minimum punishment of six months in prison and a fine of 1 million riel, or about $250.

The opposition SRP and rights groups have denounced the conviction, while court officials have said the trial was conducted properly.

Mr Kanharith said yesterday that he could not comment on the decision of the court but nevertheless said it was no attempt to stifle dissent.

“This decision is not any intention to crack down freedom of expression, but sometimes some people must realize that the era of free lunch is finished,” Mr Kanharith wrote in a brief e-mail. He could not be reached afterward to clarify his comment.

The US Embassy has contacted the UN about the case, according to spokesman Mark Wenig, who declined to elaborate.

“We are aware of the case and have been in contact with the UN about it,” Mr Wenig wrote in an e-mail.

The UK and Australian embassies also said they had also been following developments in the case. A spokesperson for the UN referred questions to the WFP, which could not be reached for comment.

Chou Sokheng, attorney for Mr Kunakar, said yesterday that his client had yet to decide whether to appeal. Mr Sokheng also said he had not asked for a delay in the trial because his client wanted to avoid a long period of pre-trial detention.

“My client and I wanted to know the result of the trial immediately,” Mr Sokheng said. “We did not ask the court to delay. We thought that the court would not delay this case but if they did, my client would be detained longer.”

Courts are supposed to inform suspects of their right to prepare a defense and to grant a request for delay, according to the Code of Criminal Procedure. Court officials declined to comment yesterday.

Mang Monika, senior trial monitor for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said yesterday that courts rarely hold trials on Sunday as in the case of Mr Kunakar.


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