In Cambodia, TrialWatch is monitoring the misuse of Cambodia’s law criminalizing ‘incitement to disrupt social order,’ which is the government’s tool of choice to try to silence anyone critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen—even to the extent of prosecuting an autistic child for criticisms on Telegram. CFJ’s partner the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights has monitored four trials under this law, and CFJ has partnered with Debevoise & Plimpton to take one of the cases to the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, where we have requested not only individual relief but also that the Working Group engage Cambodia to review the ‘incitement’ law to advance systemic reform.
But this is not the only tool being used to silence journalists. The ABA Center for Human Rights has also monitored the case of two Radio Free Asia journalists charged with espionage as part of TrialWatch. In that case, TrialWatch Expert Professor Göran Sluiter urged reform of the prosecution services to ensure that journalists are not prosecuted just for doing their job.
Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American human rights lawyers, was convicted to ‘incitement’ and ‘conspiracy to commit treason,’ and sentenced to six years in prison as part of a mass trial of individuals allegedly affiliated with the opposition.
A report on the case found that the prosecution had provided no information on the basis of the charges—in fact, the charging document doesn’t even mention Ms. Seng except among a long list of accused. It concludes that the “lack of information as to Ms. Seng’s alleged criminal wrongdoing suggests that the prosecution is but a pretext to curtail her freedom of expression and, further, that it is meant to serve as a broader warning to dissenting voices.”
Kak Sovannchhay, an autistic teenager and the son of two opposition politicians, was prosecuted for ‘incitement’ and ‘insult’ for sending messages on Telegram critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen after people in the messaging group called him “the son of a traitor.” He was forced to explain his own autism diagnosis in court, without the benefit of medical testimony, convicted, and sentenced to eight months’ imprisonment (albeit with part of the sentence suspended). As TrialWatch Expert Alex Conte explained, this is “a trauma that cannot be undone.”A TrialWatch report found he was “stripped … of the protections to which he was entitled as a child with disabilities.”
Journalist Ros Sokhet was prosecuted, convicted, and given an eighteen-month prison sentence for Facebook posts critical of Hun Sen and his family, for instance suggesting that Hun Sen had encouraged banks to confiscate the property of individuals who could not pay back their loans. As in Kong Raiya’s case, the report on the trial found that the prosecution offered no evidence that Mr. Sokhet had intended to incite disorder, as required by Cambodian law, nor was there any evidence of ‘incitement,’ other than the testimony of a single police officer, who had not even read all of Mr. Sokhet’s posts and admitted that the police department had not received any complaints about the posts. This case was likewise assigned a grade of ‘D.’ A decision on the lawfulness of Mr. Sokhet’s detention is expected soon from the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention.
An activist with the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party was prosecuted and convicted of ‘incitement’ for social media posts advertising t-shirts that bore the image of a slain activist—whose death local and international organizations have said was not adequately investigated by the Cambodian authorities. Kong Raiya was given a two-year suspended sentence following a trial that not only violated his right to freedom of expression, but also his right to be presumed innocent, and which was given a grade of ‘D.’ The report on the case concludes that “this trial should never have happened.”
Two former Radio Free Asia journalists were charged with espionage, an offense carrying a potential fifteen-year prison sentence, for continuing to share publicly-available information about local events with RFA after RFA was forced to close its office in Phnom Penh under pressure from the Cambodian government. While the case has not yet concluded—as after trial, the court ordered re-investigation of issues the prosecution had known about from the start—the report on the trial found numerous fair trial violations, including the “court permit[ing] a junior police officer to repeatedly whisper to a senior police officer testifying for the prosecution.” It concluded that there “was no evidence that the defendants, both journalists, were doing anything other than their work, as protected by international human rights law.”
The criminal prosecution and conviction of Kak Sovannchhay, the autistic child of two opposition activists, violated a range of rights that Cambodia is obligated to protect under both domestic and international law
Kong Raiya was prosecuted and convicted for “incitement to disrupt social order.” The case against him stemmed from Facebook posts in which he advertised the sale of t-shirts commemorating a slain critic of the Cambodian government.
In late 2020, the ABA Center for Human Rights monitored the criminal trial of journalist Ros Sokhet in Cambodia as part of the CFJ's TrialWatch initiative. Mr. Sokhet was criminally prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced for non-violent political speech, violating his right to freedom of expression.
In November 2020, Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer and outspoken government critic, learned through a court summons that charges had been filed against her for conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to social disorder. She is facing a 12-year prison sentence.