Cambodia sentences autistic minor to eight months in prison

Son of former senior CNRP member convicted of insulting the government and officials.
2021.11.01
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Cambodia sentences autistic minor to eight months in prison Cambodian activist Prum Chantha (L) and her son, Kak Sovannchhay, sit at a Buddhist temple near Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh, Oct. 6, 2020.
Photo courtesy of Prum Chantha

A court in Cambodia Monday sentenced the teenaged autistic son of a jailed member of the country’s banned opposition party to eight months in prison for incitement and insulting public officials, his mother and lawyer told RFA.

Judge Uong Vuthea of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court pronounced the verdict to Kak Sovannchhay, son of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) senior member Kak Komphear, ordering him to serve four-and-a-half months of the sentence and suspending the remainder. He is scheduled for release on Nov. 9, after which he will remain under judicial supervision for two years.

Kak Sovanchhay was arrested at his home in Phnom Penh on June 24 by police on charges that he had insulted government leaders on social media. A day later, he was remanded to Prey Sar Prison, the largest of Cambodia’s two dozen jails run by the Ministry of Interior. His father has been serving time in the same prison since May 2020 on charges of conspiracy and incitement.

Prior to his arrest, an unknown person contacted him via the popular instant messaging app Telegram, asking him for his identity and referring to his father as a traitor according to New York-based Humanr Rights Watch (HRW). The person called Kak Sovanchhay’s father a traitor and threatened him saying he too would be arrested.

HRW also reported that Kak Sovanchhay had been previously arrested on October 2020, then in April 2021, two men attacked him with bricks while he was driving a motorbike, leaving him with a fractured skull. Police never found either attacker.

Ahead of pronouncing the verdict Monday, court officials ordered foreign embassy officials, Civil Society Organization representatives, and other observers to leave the hearing room, only allowing Kak Sovannchhay’s lawyer, his mother Prum Chantha, and Sovannchhay himself to personally listen to the verdict.

Prum Chantha said her son could not understand the gravity of the verdict due to his autism. She said her son, who has been in prison since his arrest, looks pale, has lost weight, and suffers from a skin ailment that makes him itch.

Court officials and prison guards did not permit Prum Chantha and Kak Sovannchhay to sit near each other during the hearing, citing COVID-19 restrictions. Prum Chantha was immediately escorted out of the court room after the judge pronounced the verdict.

“I think the court should drop all charges against my son,” Prum Chantha told RFA’s Khmer Service. “He is a minor! My son did not do anything wrong at all.”

She said that her son voiced his opinions on a closed group within Telegram and did not speak out publicly against any government official.

“There are many members in that Telegram group. Other people also made insults, why didn’t the court go after them? Why only my son? It seems like a form of intimidation against me,” Prum Chantha said. 

About 50 security guards had been deployed outside the courthouse to disperse any potential protests but none materialized during the hearing.

Defense lawyer Sam Sokong told RFA that his client should not have been sentenced to prison for the alleged offense.

“According to the law, my client’s autism and status as a minor should preclude criminal responsibilities. He doesn’t fully understand about what happened. ... The verdict will affect the entire future of a child,” he said.

During the trial, Sam Sokong twice requested that the court evaluate his client’s disability, but did not do so because the prosecution denied that Kak Sovanchhay is disabled.

The verdict will invite criticism from the international community regarding Cambodia’s stance on the rights of children, Am Sam Ath of the locally based Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) told RFA.

“There will be more criticism regarding violation of children’s rights since he is just 16 years old and he was physically assaulted,” said Am Sam Ath, referring to the April attack.

The conviction is a new low in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s witch hunt against his political opponents, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement.

“This case is solely based on Sovannchhay being the son of a former opposition member, who himself is jailed and persecuted for his political affiliations,” Robertson said.

“The fact that the authorities denied the boy's disability and support needs, compounded by the court denying the repeated request for a medical expert’s assessment attesting to those needs, is appalling and shows that the government prioritizes a campaign of intimidation over a child's needs,” he said, urging Cambodia’s U.N. country team and foreign governments to call for his immediate release.

Prum Chantha has said she believes that authorities arrested her son as payback for her participation in Friday Wives, a group of women who hold weekly protests to demand the release of husbands jailed for expressing views critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s leadership.

More than 80 political, social, and environmental activists have been arrested and imprisoned since the end of 2019, most of them on charges of incitement and conspiracy.

National and international organizations and many democratic countries have repeatedly condemned the detentions as politically motivated and have demanded the detainees’ immediate release.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Eugene Whong

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