Phnom Penh Municipal Court yesterday convicted an employee of the UN’s World Food Program of incitement and sentenced him to six months in jail, less than 48 hours after he was first arrested for distributing leaflets critical of the government, court officials and police said yesterday.
Seng Kunakar was given a six-month sentence and fined 1 million riel, or about $250, for printing and distributing leaflets that criticized government figures, according to Judge Kor Vanndy.
“The court found him guilty of the crime of incitement…on Sunday and sent him to prison that same day,” he said, adding that Mr Kunakar was charged under article 495 of the new penal code, which came into effect 10 days ago.
Russei Keo district police arrested Mr Kunakar on Friday after receiving a complaint that he was handing out anti-government leaflets, according to district police chief Soum Mony.
Mr Mony said that the material contained in the leaflets was originally published by KI-Media, an opposition-aligned website that publishes Cambodia-related news and commentary.
Mr Kunakar was handed to the court for questioning on Saturday, he added.
WFP Country Director Jean-Pierre de Margerie said in an e-mail yesterday that the organization was still trying to gather information about Mr Kunakar’s arrest.
“We are purely a development agency not involved in any political activity and abide entirely to humanitarian principles which include impartiality,” he wrote.
Prime Minister Hun Sen recently lashed out at the WFP, accusing it of falsely reporting that Cambodia faced a food shortage. The WFP Cambodia office denied reporting any such claim.
“There is no indication that these two events are related. We maintain a very good working relationship with the Royal Government of Cambodia,” Mr de Margerie wrote.
Chou Sokheng, Mr Kunakar’s lawyer, said his client had confessed to printing material from the Internet to read with his co-workers and friends, but did not distribute the material.
“He told the judge that he did not incite the public to commit crimes against the government as the court charged,” Mr Sokheng said.
Mr Sokheng said he did not know why his client’s trial was conducted so quickly after his arrest.
Rights groups were quick to condemn the conviction and the speed with which it was carried out.
“People have the right to express themselves, or to have access to information in a democratic country. This arrest shows that the right of freedom of expression and the right to have access to information are limited,” said Chan Soveth, head monitor for rights group Adhoc.
Rights group Licadho released a statement yesterday calling for the conviction to be overturned.
“This rushed trial and groundless conviction is further proof of the growing crackdown on freedom of expression by the Cambodian government,” the statement read.
Under current law, a suspect can be immediately brought to trial and sentenced in certain instances. However, the law states that an immediate trial can only be carried out on the day of the arrest and cannot be held if the applicable prison term is less than one year.
“If the case is a flagrant crime…the prosecutor can send it to trial immediately. But only if the arrest and the trial are on the same day,” said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project.
He suggested that the prosecutor might have simply made a mistake in applying the procedure for an immediate trial. However, he also suggested that other motives could have been at work.
“This is what we call a political case, so it is fast…. It could also be a warning to others. One principle of the law is to deter,” he said.
A government spokesman could not be reached for comment yesterday.
SRP spokesman Yim Sovann called for Mr Kunakar’s release yesterday and said he believed the leaflets contained information relating to opposition party claims of encroachment along the Vietnamese border.