SRP leader Sam Rainsy’s hopes of negotiating his return to Cambodia with the government took another blow yesterday as Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced him to 10-years jail on forgery and disinformation charges.
The self-exiled opposition leader was found guilty of forging public documents and spreading disinformation by publishing documents on the Internet to bolster his claim that Vietnam was encroaching on Cambodian territory in Svay Rieng province.
Announcing the verdict in front of a tightly guarded courtroom, Judge Ke Sakhorn ordered that Mr Rainsy pay a fine of 5 million riel fine, or about $1,250, as part of his sentence and a further 60 million riel, or about $15,000, in compensation and damages to the government, who were the plaintiffs.
Judge Sakhorn also issued an arrest warrant for Mr Rainsy, who has based himself in Paris since facing separate charges late last year.
“Sam Rainsy’s activities made the Cambodian government lose face and affected [the relationship] between Cambodia and Vietnam,” Judge Sakhorn said. “Sam Rainsy used a false map to show that Vietnam was encroaching on Cambodian territory in Svay Rieng province.”
Mr Rainsy now faces a stretch of 12 years in jail, if he ever returns to Cambodia, after previously being sentenced in January to two years jail on charges of damaging public property and racial incitement stemming from a protest in which he led a group of Svay Rieng province villagers in uprooting six temporary border demarcation posts last year.
Given the length of Mr Rainsy’s jail term and the recent rejection of requests made to senior CPP officials to help negotiate his return to Cambodia, the SRP leader’s political future appears to now lie in the hands of the international community, who have been asked to pressure the government.
SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said yesterday that Mr Rainsy and other party members would continue to ask the international community for help. “Sam Rainsy is not a criminal, he is a hero,” Mr Sovann claimed.
“The court’s decision shows a bad image of Cambodia to the international community. It is a step back for democracy in Cambodia. No one can say that Cambodia is a democratic country when the opposition leader has been sentenced to 12-years jail.”
Government lawyer Ky Tech, who brought the forgery and disinformation lawsuit against Mr Rainsy, said outside the court yesterday that the verdict was justice for the government.
“We accept this verdict and it is justice for the government, which has been hugely affected by what Mr Rainsy has done,” Mr Tech said, adding that the government was ready for the SRP leader to appeal.
Mr Rainsy’s lawyer Choung Choungy declined to comment about the outcome of the case yesterday and said he did not yet know whether his client would appeal. “I will be considering the verdict with my client,” he said.
The announcement of Mr Rainsy’s guilty verdict yesterday comes nearly five years after Mr Hun Sen signed a border agreement with Vietnam and said he would sue anyone who accused him of allowing Vietnam to take Cambodian land.
It also came less than a week after UN human rights envoy Surya Subedi released a report saying that the Cambodian judiciary regularly “allowed itself to be used or manipulated for political or purely private purposes.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan, however, claimed yesterday that the court’s verdict had nothing to do with politics. “This was not politically motivated at all,” he said. “This is about the rule of law and about how everybody has to abide by the rule of law.”
Political observer Chea Vannath said yesterday that she could still foresee Mr Rainsy’s return to Cambodia, but only after an appropriate mediator was found to aid the negotiation between the SRP and the government.
“The question of the amount of time it will take for Sam Rainsy to return, is actually a question of how long it will take to find the right mediator,” Ms Vannath said, adding that she did not think that the CPP had any political reasons to be fearful of Mr Rainsy.
“I think the CPP should feel confident enough with their popularity to return Sam Rainsy, because if there is a good fight [at the 2013 election], it will mean they win with honor and glory,” she said.