Opposition Senator Thak Lany was convicted of defamation and incitement in absentia on Thursday and sentenced to 18 months in jail for accusing Prime Minister Hun Sen of ordering the July 10 assassination of prominent political analyst Kem Ley.
Mr. Hun Sen, who denies the allegation, sued Ms. Lany in July over a speech caught on video that appears to show the senator accusing him of ordering the hit while speaking to opposition supporters in Ratanakkiri province.
Along with the prison sentence, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued a warrant for Ms. Lany’s arrest—she has not been seen or heard from since the suit was filed—and ordered her to pay a fine of 8 million riel, about $2,000. The senator must also pay a symbolic 100 riel in compensation to Mr. Hun Sen.
During the first day of trial last month, the court was shown a two-minute clip of the speech in which she is seen saying: “Now Mr. Hun Sen doesn’t know what he’s thinking. In his restlessness he killed Mr. Kem Ley.”
Ms. Lany, a senator for the legacy Sam Rainsy Party, has denied making the allegations and claims the video was doctored. Her lawyer, Sam Sokong, said on Thursday that he would challenge the verdict.
“I think the decision has not provided justice to my client and I will talk to my client about preparing the documents for an appeal,” he said.
Mr. Sokong claims to have his own video of the Ratanakkiri speech proving that the clip shown in court was doctored, but chose not to show it during the trial because the municipal court “does not provide justice.” He said he was saving it for the Court of Appeal, a venue he said was more likely to grant a fair hearing.
During the trial, witnesses for the prosecution and defense said the senator did and did not make the comments heard in the video, respectively. But the provenance of the clip remains unknown. Presiding Judge Y Thavrak stopped Mr. Sokong when he began asking the prosecution’s witnesses who shot the video.
Ms. Lany’s husband, Chhun Bun San, said he was sure his wife would never accuse Mr. Hun Sen of ordering Kem Ley’s assassination.
“I think this is injustice,” he said. “I don’t believe she would dare talk like that.”
Mr. Sokong has claimed not to know where the senator is since the charges were filed.
On Thursday, however, her husband said she had left for Sweden with the U.N.’s help soon after local media outlets started reporting on the lawsuit. He said she left without her passport as a political refugee.
Mr. Bun San said he believed he has been followed since the case began but had no imminent plans to leave the country himself.
The regional office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees would neither confirm nor deny Mr. Bun San’s claims, citing its policy not to comment on individual cases.
A request for comment from the Swedish Embassy in Phnom Penh was referred to Ambassador Maria Sargren, who could not be reached. Sweden’s Migration Agency, which handles asylum cases, confirmed that Ms. Lany had entered Sweden, but could not immediately comment on her status.
Ms. Lany is the fifth opposition lawmaker to be handed jail time in the past year in what the opposition party, political observers, the U.N. and U.S. have all described as a politically motivated legal assault on the government’s critics. CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who is facing a two-year sentence, was recently barred from returning to Cambodia from abroad, in apparent violation of the Constitution.
Mr. Rainsy is also being prosecuted in absentia for defamation and incitement for accusing Mr. Hun Sen’s government, but not the prime minister specifically, of orchestrating Kem Ley’s murder.
The man arrested for the shooting claims he killed the analyst, a frequent critic of the government, over an unpaid debt. But relatives of both Kem Ley and the suspect, a former soldier, say the two men never knew each other, fueling widespread public suspicion that the government was involved.
Mr. Rainsy tweeted after Thursday’s conviction that his view was unchanged.
“I stand by my accusation,” he wrote. “Nobody else could have done it.”
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)