During their trial on Monday morning in Phnom Penh over charges of incitement to commit a felony, activists Tep Vanny and Bov Sophea were met with an unexpected change of heart. The presiding judge decided to convict them of “insulting,” handing them each a six-day prison sentence after a brief hearing.
Ms. Sophea was released on Monday night on time served. Ms. Vanny, however, was sent back to pretrial detention over an unrelated charge for her involvement in a 2013 protest. She now faces two to five years in prison on a charge of aggravated intentional violence.
During Monday’s hearing at the municipal court, Judge Pech Vicheathor grilled the pair on why they felt compelled to set up the “insulting” effigies representing court officials, which they cursed with chili and salt during the protest last Monday, shortly before they were arrested.
“If you want to appeal for justice, why do you need to have an effigy?” Judge Vicheathor asked.
“What’s illegal about an effigy?” Ms. Vanny shot back. “If the authorities had warned us about making effigies, then we wouldn’t have made them.”
“The effigy has no head. It’s insulting to court officials,” the judge replied.
Sam Sokunthea, a lawyer for the two activists, said there was nothing in the law explicitly prohibiting people from making effigies. “We can see that every person who practices Buddhism can hold a traditional ceremony…so there is no law to say it is crime in order to arrest them,” she said.
“The effigies have no senses. How can they use them to commit a crime?”
After a brief deliberation, the judge altered the charge and announced the six-day sentence for insulting, which consists of using words, gestures, written documents, pictures or objects liable to undermine a person’s dignity.
The incitement charge carried a much harsher prison sentence of six months to two years.
“The Phnom Penh Municipal Court, after listening to the defendants, prosecutors, lawyers, then reviewing the evidence…charges defendants Tep Vanny and Bov Sophea with insulting according to Article 502 of the Criminal Code,” Judge Vicheathor said.
“As punishment, defendants Tep Vanny and Bov Sophea are sentenced to six days in prison and fined 80,000 riel each,” or about $20, he said.
The judge did not explain the decision to change the charge, and court officials could not be reached Monday.
Despite the reduced charge, Am Sam Ath, technical coordinator at rights group Licadho, criticized the decision as he was leaving the court.
“This was a religious ceremony, so it’s not a crime,” Mr. Sam Ath said, referring to the protest in which participants cursed court officials for failing to find justice for the family of murdered political analyst Kem Ley.
“For Cambodian people, the effigy is for their religion—to remove the evil from everywhere. There is no law to ban it.”
Ms. Sophea was released at about 8 p.m., after already serving six days in detention. Photographs posted online show her weeping while wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with Kem Ley’s face and the words “Wipe away your tears; continue your journey.”
Ms. Vanny was transferred back to Prey Sar prison, where she is awaiting trial on separate charges brought by the court last week, according to Licadho. The charge of intentional violence relates to a protest near Prime Minister Hun Sen’s house more than three years ago calling for the release of then-jailed activist Yorm Bopha.
Ms. Vanny and Ms. Sophea have been at the forefront of the Black Monday campaign, which was launched in May to pressure the government to release human rights activists and an election official jailed in April on charges widely viewed as being politically motivated.
During a speech at his “Peace Palace” in Phnom Penh on Monday, Prime Minister Hun Sen once again pointed to war-torn nations as an example of the dire consequences the Black Monday protests could have on Cambodia.
“Look at Black Monday, please don’t do it. Let’s look to Iraq, Syria, Libya or Ukraine,” said Mr. Hun Sen, who has repeatedly warned in recent years against color revolutions. “How can they go back now with so much tension?”