Two outspoken critics of Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen are to be dragged to court this month on vague charges of “incitement to commit a crime,” but the defendants say they have done nothing illegal.
Prominent activist monk Luon Sovath received a summons dated Oct. 22 and signed by Phnom Penh Municipal Court deputy prosecutor Meas Chanpeseth accusing him of “incitement to commit crimes in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and abroad” in 2011, under Penal Code article 495.
U.S.-based Cambodian dissident Sourn Serey Ratha, who leads the Khmer People Power Movement (KPPM)—a group labeled a terrorist organization by Phnom Penh—received a similar summons from the court dated the same day, also accusing him of incitement in 2011 in the Cambodian capital and abroad.
Neither of the summonses, which ordered the two men to appear in court together in the capital on Nov. 25, specified what crimes they had incited or how their cases were linked.
Under the Penal Code, incitement is vaguely defined in article 495 as directly provoking the commission of a crime or an act that creates "serious turmoil in society" through public speech, writings or drawings, or audio-visual telecommunication.
The warrant sent to Sourn Serey Ratha also accused him of “creating a disturbance against voters” and “conspiracy” in the run-up to the July 2013 general elections and beyond, though it did not elaborate on what acts the charges were related to.
Prior to the ballot, the KPPM had printed T-shirts with slogans urging the public not to vote amid allegations of widespread irregularities.
In August 2013, the group had distributed leaflets calling on the Cambodian armed forces to turn their guns against the country’s “dictator” instead of against mostly opposition supporters protesting over the disputed general elections.
Luon Sovath faces up to five years in prison if convicted, while Sourn Serey Ratha faces a total maximum punishment of 15 years.
Luon Sovath told RFA Monday that he would attend the hearing and said local nongovernmental organizations had provided him with two lawyers for his defense, but he questioned why he was facing criminal charges.
“What is meant by an incitement to commit crimes?” he asked.
“In Buddhism, incitement means to provoke people to kill, rob, or lie, but what I have done? Has anyone seen me incite people?”
Luon Sovath said that he had attended a United Nations conference in New York in 2011 where he met Sourn Serey Ratha “but I was not involved with what he does in the U.S.,” referring to his group’s aim of regime change in Cambodia.
“I came with a human rights NGO to give a presentation on the land dispute issue in Cambodia,” he said.
Sourn Serey Ratha also denied the charges against him and told RFA from the U.S. that his lawyer would represent him at court in his absence.
“Our struggle depends on international laws to fight against the dictatorship [in Cambodia],” he said.
“We are not involved with any armed forces or illegal acts.”
An earlier hearing for both Luon Sovath and Sourn Serey Ratha had been scheduled for Sept. 18, but was delayed because the monk was traveling abroad.
A report by the Cambodia Daily at the time cited Sourn Serey Ratha as saying that he had sponsored a trip by Luon Sovath to the U.S. in 2011 and helped raise nearly U.S. $30,000 for the monk’s human rights work in Cambodia, but that they did not communicate after that.
The report had quoted deputy prosecutor Meas Chanpeseth as saying that the two would be tried together because they are involved in the same case, without elaborating.
Luon Sovath, who is known as the “multimedia monk,” is known for his presence at protests against land grabs and election fraud where he regularly documents the events through video and photography.
He became the first Southeast Asian recipient of the Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders in 2012, the aim of which is to provide protection through international recognition, according to the award's official website.
Sourn Serey Ratha had filed, on behalf of the KPPM, a complaint with the Hague-based International Criminal Court (ICC) two years ago accusing Hun Sen of “crimes against humanity,” but it was eventually dropped.
The complaint alleged that the Cambodian government has forcibly evicted more than 100,000 people from land the group says they have “legal title” to, and that members of the government are personally profiting from the use and sale of such land.
The U.S.-based group cited “credible reports” of beatings, unjustified imprisonment, and killings of individuals who question or legally resist the forced evictions.
The KPPM’s complaint is believed to have upset Hun Sen.
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.