Cambodian groups call for charges to be dropped against student leader

Koet Saray has been charged with incitement after speaking up for villagers caught in a land dispute clash.
By RFA Khmer
2024.04.08
Cambodian groups call for charges to be dropped against student leader Villagers meet with Koet Saray (L), president of the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association, in the forest where they are hiding in Preah Vihear province, March 21, 2024.
(Koet Saray via Facebook)

More than 50 civil society organizations have called on prosecutors to drop incitement charges against the leader of a student organization who recently spoke in defense of villagers involved in a land dispute in northern Cambodia.

About 10 plainclothes police officers raided the offices of the Khmer Student Intelligent League Association on Friday and arrested its president. Koet Saray was charged on Sunday with committing incitement to disturb social security.

His arrest “is a continuation of the silencing of the right to freedom of expression and the oppression of human rights and environmental defenders, which are severe violations of the fundamental rights stated in the Constitution,” the joint statement from 56 organizations said on Monday.

The felony incitement charge stems from his visit to Preah Vihear province last month to meet a group of 100 villagers who have been hiding in a forested area near the Thai border since a violent clash with police on March 6 that resulted in 40 arrests.

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Villagers in the forest where they are hiding in northern Cambodia’s Preah Vihear province, March 21, 2024. (Koet Saray via Facebook)

Koet Saray posted photos on social media and spoke to media outlets, including Radio Free Asia, about the villagers’ dire living situation.

The charges allege that he planned to lure villagers into illegal land grabbing and more violent protests.

“During the month of March suspect Koet Saray organized and persuaded people to commit illegal land encroachment and fight violently against the competent authorities, and then frightened people to flee into the jungle,” the Phnom Penh Municipal Court said in a statement.

‘Free our brothers and sisters’

One of the villagers, Lut Sala, told RFA on Monday that Koet Saray did not incite them but only met with villagers to hear about those who were still being detained, she said.

“I request the Preah Vihear provincial authorities, please end the problem. Stop hunting to arrest people and free our brothers and sisters, including brother Koet Saray,” she said.

The civil society organizations said Koet Saray’s media interviews and comments on the land dispute were “an expression of his concerns for people’s livelihoods and a call to urge the authorities to solve the problems taking place there.”

“Sharing his opinion should be seen as helping the authorities solve issues, rather than incitement,” the organizations said.

Court spokesman Plang Sophal told RFA on Monday that he had not received the organizations’ statement.

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A youth group gathered in front of the Phnom Penh police headquarters to call for the release of Koet Saray, April 6, 2024. (Licadho)

The new government of Prime Minister Hun Manet ought to find better ways to address the concerns of the people, said Chak Sopheap, the executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, which signed the statement.

Prosecuting Koet Saray for speaking publicly about the land dispute is what commonly took place under Hun Sen during his decades in power, she said on Facebook. Hun Sen resigned in August to allow his eldest son to be appointed to the office.

Koet Saray is being held in pre-trial detention at Prey Sar Prison and has also been charged with committing a misdemeanor, according to a court statement.

That charge is related to restrictions placed on him after a 2020 arrest and conviction – also for incitement – when he and another activist planned to lead a protest in Phnom Penh to demand the release of union leader Rong Chhun. He was released from prison in 2021.

Translated by Sum Sok Ry. Edited by Matt Reed.

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