The Supreme Court upheld the convictions yesterday of SRP president Sam Rainsy and two Svay Rieng provincial villagers for uprooting temporary border markers along the Vietnamese frontier.
The ruling struck a final blow to the opposition leader’s and farmers’ legal battle in which they sought the dismissal of a joint $16,000 fine. The court also upheld Mr Rainsy’s two-year prison term, once again raising questions about his prospects in Cambodian politics and the future of the SRP.
Chuong Chuongy, lawyer for the three accused, said the decision was disappointing.
“When the farmers complain about the marker put in their farmland and authorities did not solve it and arrested them, it is not justice for them and it is not a democratic country,” he said. “The court’s decision is wrong.”
Mr Rainsy, who is now living in self-imposed exile, was convicted in January 2010 for damaging public property and racial incitement after leading villagers who removed six wooden posts in Chantrea district in October 2009. Farmers Prum Chea and Meas Srey each received one-year sentences, later reduced, for damaging public property.
Mr Rainsy still has a pending appeal for a separate conviction from September 2010 for forging public documents and disinformation stemming from his release of maps allegedly showing how Cambodia-Vietnam border posts in Svay Rieng had moved up to 500 meters inside Cambodian territory.
Mr Chea and Ms Srey said, as rice farmers, paying the fine was next to impossible.
“I am poor and a widow with two kids. I could not pay,” said Ms Srey. “How could I feed my kids? I lose my farmland; I need my land.”
SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said he was not surprised by the verdict but worried how the court’s decision would affect politics in the country.
“This is a big loss for the Cambodian people at home and abroad,” he said, again calling the conviction politically motivated.
Mr Sovann said Mr Rainsy nevertheless would remain as SRP president, though some questioned how his absence would benefit the party.
With commune elections slated for next year and a National Assembly election in 2013, the SRP will need a clear leader at the helm if it wants to do well, said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections. He said in Cambodian politics a strong leader is needed to shore up electoral support and direct the campaigns.
“The voters very much look to the leaders. If there is something wrong with the leader, it affects the process of competition,” he said.
Mr Panha said that the SRP should seek a royal pardon for Mr Rainsy to secure his return or face a daunting campaign season.
But, he added, the CPP could also suffer some political blowback from Mr Rainsy’s absence. Having a key figure in the opposition gone could call into question the fairness of any elections and the legitimacy of its results.
“It’s not a good image for the winner,” Mr Panha said. “It’s a competition without a fair competition.”
Mr Sovann echoed the comment, saying the SRP would not be affected by yesterday’s ruling, rather the CPP would be criticized for Mr Rainsy’s exile.
One man praising the ruling, however, was government lawyer Chan Sokyieng. He said the verdict confirmed no one was above the law.
“Everyone has to respect the rule of law. They are wrong because they damaged the markers and it’s a criminal case,” he said.