A Cambodian court on Tuesday put off a hearing involving a prominent activist monk facing disputed charges of “incitement to commit felony” following criticism from civil society and rights groups.
Loun Sovath is accused of inciting and leading protests against the government by victims of land disputes in the Chi Kreng district of Siem Reap and Boeung Kak Lake in the capital Phnom Penh.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court cited an unspecified technical problem when it cancelled Loun Sovath’s hearing, and said it would be rescheduled at a future date.
If convicted, he could face up to two years imprisonment and a fine of U.S. $1,000, according to a statement issued by the groups at the weekend.
After the closed-door court session on Tuesday, Loun Sovath told RFA’s Khmer Service that judge Top Chhunheng said there was a procedural problem, but gave no further explanation.
However, the court has refused to drop the charges against the monk, who has played an active role in backing repressed communities and human rights defenders across Cambodia.
“The judge summoned me to appear before the court at 8 a.m.,” Loun Sovath told RFA. “When I arrived, he said there was a technical problem.”
The monk called the hearing “a joke” and said it was unjust for the court to maintain its charges against him.
Outside the courthouse, about 300 villagers and activists rallied to show their support for Loun Sovath.
Mu Sochua, an opposition lawmaker from the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), who monitored the proceeding, said the trial was aimed at intimidating Loun Sovath to not get involved in social issues.
Sixteen civil society groups, including Amnesty International, Cambodia’s Community Legal Education Center (CLEC), and Licadho, issued a statement calling for authorities to drop the charges against the monk.
They noted that the current incitement charge was first tried in absentia in 2012 in a case that also named as defendant the president of the U.S.-based Khmer People Power Movement, Sourn Serey Ratha.
After that trial, presiding judge Leang Samnab ordered that the case against the monk be separated from the one against Sourn Serey Ratha because of insufficient evidence, the statement said.
The judge also said there was insufficient evidence to convict Loun Sovath for incitement, it said.
The current case against the monk has been combined with two other cases from incidents in 2013 that are not related to him, the statement went on to say.
Those cases allege crimes of plotting against the government and intimidating and preventing people from voting.
“The recent spate of arrests and cursory convictions of human rights activists shows again how readily the courts are used to suppress dissent,” said Brad Adams, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch's Asia Division, in the statement.
“The fact that a judicial order issued by the court has been completely ignored in a case involving such a well-known and respected human rights defender as Venerable Sovath will continue to erode any confidence in the judicial system.”
Tuesday’s hearing was combined with another case against Sourn Serey Ratha, considered a terrorist by the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), who faces additional charges of treason and obstruction of electoral procedures.
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator with the local rights group Licadho, told RFA that the monk had not broken any laws and that the judge was trying to link him to activist Sourn Serey Ratha in order to get an easy conviction.
“The fact is that Venerable Loun Sovath is not involved with Sourn Serey Ratha,” he said. “The court’s charges are due to the monk’s active involvement with land issues.”
Am Sam Ath said the court wanted to silence the monk to prevent him from helping those protesting land grabs and other social injustices.
Phay Siphan, spokesman of the Council of Ministers, criticized the intervention by civil society groups, saying they should “be more civilized” and “help the government, not interfere” with the rule of law in Cambodia, The Phnom Penh Post reported.
In a statement yesterday, Sourn Serey Ratha, who is currently in Thailand, also called on the court to drop the charges, the report said.
The United Nations, foreign governments, policymakers, and international NGOs have recognized the efforts of Loun Sovath, known as the “multimedia monk.”
He has encouraged essays, poetry, songs, and videography as ways to raise awareness about human rights abuses in Cambodia.
Reported by Morm Moniroth for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.