The leader of Cambodia’s main opposition party is facing an 18-year jail term should a Phnom Penh court convict him later this month of charges that the opposition says are steeped in politics.
Opposition party leader Rainsy in happier times
The municipal court in Phnom Penh heard evidence on Wednesday in the government’s case against opposition leader Sam Rainsy. It is the second case the government has brought against him in less than a year.
Sam Rainsy was not in court – he is currently in France in self-imposed exile after receiving a two-year sentence from a Cambodian court in January.
The charges against Rainsy
In today’s case he faced charges of spreading disinformation and falsifying public documents. The charges carry jail terms of up to 18 years.
The charges are based on a press conference given by Sam Rainsy earlier this year when he showed maps of the border area with Cambodia’s powerful and influential neighbour Vietnam.
Mu Sochua: guilty of defamation
He claimed the maps proved that Vietnam was taking land belonging to Cambodian farmers.
Ruling party close to Hanoi
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen’s links to Hanoi are easy pickings for the opposition, and go down well with some in a country whose people are wary of their powerful neighbours.
Cambodia’s ruling party was effectively installed by Hanoi after a combined Cambodian-Vietnamese military force drove out the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime three decades ago.
Can courts deliver justice?
Although Sam Rainsy missed today’s hearing, a number of opposition MPs were there including former women’s affairs minister, Mu Sochua – herself no stranger to the country’s much-criticized courts. Last year Mu Sochua sued Hun Sen for defamation over public comments he had made that she felt were about her and were derogatory. Hun Sen countersued and won on the grounds that her case against him was in itself defamatory.
Speaking outside the court, Mu Sochua said she did not believe the courts would deliver justice for Sam Rainsy: "For me this is déjà vu – revisiting my case again. You have the plaintiff, which is the government, the prosecutor is repeating exactly what the lawyers of the government are asking for. Exactly. And you have three judges who are really not qualified on this technical issue." The court will hand down its verdict on September 23rd, which means at this stage it is unclear whether Sam Rainsy will be convicted. But the opposition believes the outcome is a foregone conclusion. Party spokesman Yim Sovann says he is "very pessimistic" about the outcome of the case. Yim Sovann says every time the opposition goes head to head with the government in the courts, the opposition loses.
Bad Image for Cambodia
Chhaya Hang is the executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, a Phnom Penh-based non-governmental organisation focused on democracy, politics and human rights. He says cases such as this one and others like it that the government has brought against its perceived critics in the opposition and in civil society carry a cost for Cambodia: "It’s really difficult to have the leader of the opposition party overseas. So this is a bad image also from outside and [for] development partners and donors and what not to Cambodia."
Hun Sen: close to Hanoi
Chhaya Hang says it is in the government’s own interest to ensure that Sam Rainsy can return from exile and carry out his work in safety and without having to worry about being sued or jailed. Chhaya Hang points out that political deals like that have happened before. Five years ago Sam Rainsy was sentenced to 18 months in prison in another case brought by the ruling party. He was eventually granted a royal pardon at Hun Sen’s request.
Regardless of the outcome from today’s case, Sam Rainsy still has a two-year jail term hanging over him from an earlier court case – again over allegations that Vietnam was taking the land of Cambodian farmers. Hun Sen has already ruled out a pardon for that. With the 2013 general election looming, it remains to be seen whether the leader of Cambodia’s opposition will even be able to take part.
Author: Robert Carmichael (Phnom Penh)
Editor: Manasi Gopalakrishnan