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Appeal Court upholds prison sentence for human rights worker

(CCHR/IFEX) - The Appeal Court of Cambodia on 14 July 2011 upheld a two-year prison sentence for Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO) staffer Leang Sokchouen. Sokchouen had originally been convicted by the Takeo Provincial Court in August 2010 on a charge of Disinformation under the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia's (UNTAC) criminal law, a law that has since been replaced by a new Penal Code. The Appeal Court upheld the two-year prison sentence handed down to Sokchouen by the Provincial Court but changed the charge to Incitement under Article 495 of the Penal Code.

Sokchouen was tried by the Takeo Provincial Court in August 2010 with three others, Thack Vannak, a former monk, Thach Le, a motorbike taxi driver, and Thank Khong Phoung. The hearing, said to have lasted over four hours, resulted in guilty verdicts for the four men. Sokchouen was sentenced to two years' imprisonment and a two million riel (USD$500) fine. Thach Vannak and Thach Le were also sentenced to two years in prison while Thach Khong Phoung, the alleged mastermind of the crime, who was tried in absentia, was sentenced to three years' jail time.

The men were charged under Article 62 of the UNTAC Criminal Law for allegedly distributing leaflets which contained critical references to the government's relationship with Vietnam. The leaflets, which were said to have been distributed prior to the 7 January anniversary of the fall of the Khmer Rouge, reportedly asserted that the day should be remembered as the day Cambodia became "abused and occupied" by Vietnam, rather than being celebrated as a day of liberation. The presiding judge, Cheng Bunly, held that "the leaflets were meant to criticize the government," and rejected defence arguments that the three accused who were present played no role in the events. The judgement, and the reasoning behind it, overlooked the fact that the right to freedom of expression protects the individual's right to express views or opinions that are critical of the government.

This is the second instance in recent months in which a charge of disinformation under UNTAC law has been changed to a charge of incitement under the Penal Code - the other case being that of Moeung Sonn, the president of the Khmer Civilization Foundation. Both cases illustrate how the judiciary in Cambodia is incorrectly applying the law in order to crack down on the individual's right to free expression. Convicting an individual of an offence that was not in force when the act in question allegedly occurred conflicts with the principle of legality. Moreover, the change in offence in this instance was also a violation of Sokchouen's right under Article 14(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to know the nature and cause of the charges against him.

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