Piling on yet another conviction to Sam Rainsy’s expanding criminal record, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday found the former opposition leader guilty of defamation and incitement for claiming the state orchestrated last year’s murder of political analyst Kem Ley.
“The court has decided to sentence Sam Rainsy…to one year and eight months in jail and fine him 10 million riel [about $2,500] on charges of public defamation and incitement causing turmoil in society,” Judge Y Thavrak announced in the morning.
At Prime Minister Hun Sen’s request, Mr. Rainsy, who lives abroad and has been banned from returning to Cambodia, was also ordered to compensate the premier a symbolic 100 riel, or about $0.025.
The charges stem from Mr. Rainsy’s claims, which he has repeated at each step of the legal process, that the fatal shooting of Kem Ley inside a Phnom Penh convenience store in July was “an act of state-sponsored terrorism.”
During the March 17 trial, Mr. Rainsy’s lawyer, Sam Sokong, argued that the comments in question were not directed at Mr. Hun Sen or anyone else in particular and so could not qualify as defamation. But Mr. Rainsy quickly sank his lawyer’s efforts by email, accusing Mr. Hun Sen himself of playing a role in the murder.
Asked about the verdict, Mr. Rainsy compared it to the grenade attack on a protest he was leading in Phnom Penh 20 years ago. The attack killed 17 people and the assailants were never captured, though an unfinished FBI investigation strongly suggested the involvement of Mr. Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit.
“In 2017 as in 1997, the real culprits of political assassinations are still walking free,” Mr. Rainsy said by email. “They even manage to sue before a kangaroo court those who denounce them. We have to put an end to this arrogant impunity that adds insult to injury.”
Oeuth Ang, a former soldier who says he shot Kem Ley over a $3,000 debt, was convicted of the murder last week. Many Cambodians believe Mr. Ang was merely a hired gun and that the assassination was politically motivated, but the government has denied any involvement.
Mr. Rainsy is not the only one the government has sued for claiming otherwise.
Opposition Senator Thak Lany was convicted in absentia in November of defamation and incitement for accusing Mr. Hun Sen of ordering the shooting and sentenced to 18 months. The senator, who denies making the remarks, fled Cambodia within days of being charged and has been granted asylum in Sweden. Political commentator Kim Sok was arrested and jailed on the same charges last month.
Mr. Rainsy said on Thursday that the government’s heavy-handed reaction to the accusations would only fuel the speculation of its involvement.
“The government’s use of such cases is self-defeating as they simply underline what millions of Cambodians already suspect about the death of Kem Ley and what they already know about their court system,” he said.
Mr. Rainsy declined to say whether he would appeal the decision. Mr. Sokong, his lawyer, denounced the decision and said the incitement charge, like the defamation, was baseless.
“This is freedom of speech, which is guaranteed by the Constitution and international law,” he added.
Mr. Rainsy was already facing a total seven years in prison before Thursday’s decision over two prior convictions, both widely seen as politically motivated. The longtime figurehead of Cambodia’s opposition movement, he was forced to resign as president of the CNRP last month for fear that his convictions could get the party dissolved under controversial new amendments to the Law on Political Parties.
Mr. Hun Sen’s lawyer, Ky Tech, said he was satisfied with the fine and the 100 riel compensation, but was hoping for a lengthier prison sentence.
“I think the decision is not enough for what Mr. Sam Rainsy has done, blaming and falsely accusing the top establishment of the country, which is the government,” he said.
Mr. Tech said he would confer with the prime minister before deciding whether to appeal for a tougher sentence.
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)