Opposition lawmaker Um Sam An was sentenced to more than two years in prison on Monday in what the CNRP considers an unconstitutional trial over Facebook posts critical of the government’s demarcation of the country’s frontier with Vietnam.
It makes him the second sitting CNRP lawmaker in the past month to receive prison time over charges widely seen as politically motivated. Deputy party leader Kem Sokha was sentenced to five months for refusing to appear in court as a witness in the “prostitution” case of his alleged mistress.
Mr. Sam An was arrested in April within hours of stepping off a flight from the U.S., where he had gone to find evidence that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government was using the wrong maps to demarcate the disputed border with Vietnam and ceding Cambodian territory in the process. He repeatedly took to Facebook to accuse the government of using the wrong maps—ignoring warnings that the comments could land him in jail—and was arrested and charged with inciting social disorder and inciting discrimination.
At the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday, Presiding Judge Heng Sokna said the case against the lawmaker was solid.
“The court believes there are enough elements of a crime to convict,” he said, handing down both a two-and-a-half-year sentence and a fine of 4 million riel, or about $1,000.
“The activities of the defendant are an obvious crime…because all the activities, such as writing, speaking and posting videos on Facebook, are still active, which means the defendant did it,” he said.
The government used the same argument to skirt Mr. Sam An’s legal immunity as a lawmaker. The Constitution makes an exception for lawmakers caught in the act of committing a crime, which is often referred to as an “obvious crime.”
The government argued that the fact that Mr. Sam An’s comments were on Facebook meant they were being committed in perpetuity, and that he was therefore caught in the act.
The CNRP argued that the Constitution still required the National Assembly to strip the lawmaker of his immunity after his arrest by a two-thirds vote, but the CPP disagreed. The ruling party used its control of the lower chamber to vote to let the case proceed by a simple majority.
Mr. Sam An and his lawyer, Choung Choungy, walked out of the trial last month in protest against what they called illegal proceedings, and stayed away from Monday’s hearing for the same reason.
Contacted afterward, Mr. Choungy described the verdict as “illegal.”
“No article lets the National Assembly vote to strip a lawmaker of immunity by 50 votes plus one,” he said. “We think the process, from my client’s arrest to the hearing, is procedural abuse, so the trial cannot deliver justice for my client.”
He said he would need to discuss the court’s decision with Mr. Sam An before deciding whether to appeal.
Mr. Choungy did not address the incitement charges themselves.
The cases against Mr. Sam An and Mr. Sokha, who is appealing his conviction while holed up inside CNRP headquarters, are part of the government’s latest legal barrage of the opposition.
Opposition Senator Hong Sok Hour is facing incitement and forgery charges over a Facebook post of his own and remains in jail while waiting for his trial to resume. CNRP president Sam Rainsy is in self-imposed exile to avoid jail for a defamation conviction. Eighteen opposition officials and activists are currently behind bars in all, along with several rights workers and activists often critical of the government.
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