PHNOM PENH—A Cambodian court sentenced the country’s best-known opposition leader in absentia on Wednesday to two years in jail for allegedly uprooting border markings, Sam Rainsy and his party said.
Sam Rainsy, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s main rival, was stripped of parliamentary immunity in November and charged with inciting racial discrimination and intentionally damaging wooden posts demarcating the Cambodia-Vietnam border.
Cambodia and Vietnam began demarcating their border in September 2006 in an effort to end many years of hostility over disputed territory—but that has escalated anti-Vietnamese sentiment in Cambodia. The 1,270-km (787-mile) border has remained essentially unmarked since French colonial times.
Two villagers, who were present in court, were also convicted for intentionally damaging the border markings during the incident in October and each was jailed for a year, Sam Rainsy Party spokesman Yim Sovann said.
"All Cambodian people know that the court in Cambodia is not a just and fair court. It is the court that carries out the order from higher authority—the powerful and the rich," Sam Rainsy said in an interview from France.
Asked if he would appeal, he replied, "It is not important. We have no respect for and belief in the Cambodian court [system] at all."
"But we will continue to protest foreign encroachment and the Cambodian government, which not only has not taken action to stop the encroachment ... but has put landowners in jail."
The Svay Rieng provincial court began its closed-door trial of Sam Rainsy and the villagers under tight security.
It ordered them to jointly pay fines equivalent to U.S. $12,500 in compensation for the markings, the spokesman said. Sam Rainsy was fined an additional $2,000 dollars.
Sam Rainsy, who was educated in France, has refused to return to Cambodia until some territory is returned to Cambodian farmers and the two jailed villagers are freed.
Court officials could not be reached to confirm the verdict, while Rainsy's lawyer refused to comment.
The English-language Phnom Penh Post meanwhile reported that Sam Rainsy could face new criminal charges after his party released what it said was concrete proof of Vietnamese border encroachments.
Government adviser Tith Sothea said the government is considering whether to take legal action against the Sam Rainsy Party president for publishing documents denigrating the government’s border-demarcation efforts.
The wife of one of the villagers, Prum Chea, said her husband would appeal.
"I will have him appeal this judgment because it is very unjust. My husband had only appealed to the government and civil society to seek a solution to the problem of our farmland," she said.
Sam Sokong, who represented the defendants, also rejected the verdict. "The court’s decision is based on a hearing that produced no evidence or facts," he said.
Intimidation, harassment alleged
According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, at least 10 government critics were prosecuted for criminal defamation and disinformation based on complaints by government and military officials during 2009.
Criminal defamation, disinformation, and incitement lawsuits were also filed against opposition Sam Rainsy Party members, including party leader Sam Rainsy, parliamentarians Mu Sochua and Ho Vann, and youth activist Soung Sophorn, it said.
"The ruling Cambodian People's Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen continued to use an array of repressive tactics, including harassment, threats, violence, and arbitrary arrest, to suppress political rivals, opposition journalists, land rights activists, and trade unionists," the report said.
Original reporting by Sok Serey and Kim Peou for RFA’s Khmer service. Additional reporting by news agencies. Khmer service director: Sos Kem. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Translated by Sum Sok Ry. Written for the Web in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.