Cambodian opposition leader sentenced to 18 months in bad check case

Candlelight Party denied new party registration, effectively keeping it from competing in future elections.
By RFA Khmer
2023.09.21
Cambodian opposition leader sentenced to 18 months in bad check case Thach Setha, vice president of the Candlelight Party, is brought to Cambodia’s Supreme Court in Phnom Penh, June 19, 2023.
Credit: Citizen journalist

Cambodia’s main opposition Candlelight Party was dealt two more blows on Thursday, one to a prominent leader and another that once again blocked it from competing in future elections.

First, Thach Setha, the 70-year-old party vice president, was convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison on a false check charge that human rights groups and party officials called politically motivated.

Second, the Ministry of Interior denied the party’s request to reissue a registration letter so that it could participate in future elections. That document had been lost in 2017 when the offices of a previous opposition party were raided by government agents. Without it, the party cannot compete in elections, leaving the country with a main opposition party.

“This goes beyond just a technical issue,” Candlelight Party spokesman Kim Sour Phirith said. “It is a political issue. Therefore, even if we ask a few thousand times, we will not get approval.”

In May, the National Election Committee had disqualified the party – the only serious contender against the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in July elections – because it did not have the original registration form issued by the interior ministry. 

Five party representatives, led by acting chairman Sok Hach, met with Secretary of State Bun Hon and other ministry officials for one hour. But the officials repeated previous refusals given just after the NEC’s decision.

According to the meeting’s minutes, Bun Hon said the ministry has the authority to allow the establishment or registration of political parties but cannot re-issue original registration documents because no law governs that procedure.

Legal scholar Vorn Chanlot told Radio Free Asia that this interpretation is just an excuse to prevent the Candlelight Party from participating in future elections. 

“From a legal standpoint, the relevant ministry cannot refuse to issue other certificates that are proportional or equivalent to the original letter,” he said. “It must facilitate such a procedure so the party can participate.”

Monitored

Thach Setha’s trial on Thursday was monitored by embassy officials from the United States, Germany and the European Union. 

He had been detained since January in a move seen as part of a months-long campaign of intimidation and threats against opposition leaders and activists.

His lawyer, Son Chum Chuon, said prosecutors didn’t present enough specific evidence to place the burden on his client.

In addition to the sentence – which also included two court fines totaling US$2,000 and an order to pay $33,400 to the company that brought the lawsuit – Thach Setha will stand trial next month on charges of incitement to social unrest and incitement racial discrimination base.

Phnom Penh Municipal Court deputy prosecutor Seng Heang questioned him at Thursday’s hearing about comments he made on Jan. 13 at a forum for Cambodian workers in South Korea about the history of the CPP and the Cambodia-Vietnam Friendship Monument.

Seng Heang said he considered Thach Setha’s remarks to be aimed at provoking the people to hate the CPP, the government and to seek political gain before the July election. 

Former history teacher

Thach Setha said that as a politician and a former history teacher, he had to speak about the nation’s history. Thach Setha said he was attempting to enlighten younger Cambodians about the CPP’s relationship with Vietnam – a sensitive political topic in the country.

If Cambodia forbids people from criticizing the ruling party and the government, it would be better to officially change Cambodia back to a communist country, he said

Judge Chhun Davy set Oct. 18 as the date for the verdict in the incitement case. After the judge adjourned the proceedings, Thach Setha walked away quietly as his wife and daughter began crying.

His wife, Thach Sokborany, said last month that he is in poor health and has been having trouble walking. On Thursday, she told RFA that the sentence on the false check charges didn’t reflect the facts in the case.

“Drop the charges, release him, let him be free to see his wife and children, because for a few months without him our family has had difficulty,” she said. 

Thursday’s conviction and sentencing was rooted more in political persecution rather than law enforcement, according to Am Sam Ath of human rights group Licadho.

“The first indictment of Mr. Thach Setha, followed by the second two charges – we see these as an additional burden or additional persecution on Mr. Thach Setha because he is the vice president of the Candlelight Party,” he said.

RFA couldn’t immediately reach court spokesman Plang Sophal and Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin for comment on Thursday.

Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Edited by Matt Reed and edited by Malcolm Foster.

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