PHNOM PENH, Cambodia—Exiled Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy was tried in absentia Friday for allegedly conspiring to incite chaos in the country through false documents posted on his Facebook page, a crime punishable by up to 17 years in prison.
Two other opposition members who maintained Sam Rainsy’s Facebook page also were tried on the same charges – conspiracy to falsify public documents, inciting chaos and using fake documents. The two fled Cambodia in August 2015 to avoid arrest. Sam Rainsy, president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, lives in exile in France.
After a brief hearing that included statements by the prosecutor and the defense attorney, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court adjourned the trial and set the verdict for Dec. 22.
Sam Rainsy’s troubles stem from a post by a member of his party, Sen. Hong Sok Hour, in August 2015 criticizing a 1979 Cambodia-Vietnam border treaty, which implied that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government was Vietnam’s puppet. Hong Sok Hour posted on Sam Rainsy’s page, and was subsequently arrested and tried.
To support his accusation on Facebook he attached a map of the border and a disputed copy of the treaty that said the two countries had agreed to “dissolve” their border. Defense lawyers said the word “dissolve” was a mistranslation of the word “redefine,” but he was convicted last month and sentenced to seven years in prison.
On Friday, prosecutor Sieng Sok urged the court to punish Sam Rainsy and his two colleagues, saying they were part of the conspiracy by allowing his Facebook page to be used by Hong Sok Hour. The convicted senator appeared as a defense witness Friday and testified that Sam Rainsy had nothing to do with the post.
Defense lawyer Sam Sokong told the court that Sam Rainsy was in the United States when the post was made and knew nothing about it. He said the page was operated by other officials.
The trial is the latest in a series of cases against opposition leaders in what is generally seen as an attempt to disrupt their organizing efforts ahead of local elections next June. The next general election is not until the middle of 2018, but holding power at the local level is an advantage when national polls are held.
Sam Rainsy is the most prominent target of these prosecutions, and has been in exile since November last year to avoid a jail term on a conviction that he had thought was covered by a royal pardon. There are several other cases pending against him. The government last month banned his re-entry from abroad, making it more difficult for him to fight the charges even if he chooses to return.
He has also been found guilty of defamation for alleging that a senior government official sought to inflate Hun Sen’s online popularity by buying “likes” for his Facebook page.
Hun Sen has been Cambodia’s leader for three decades. But in a general election in 2013, his grip on power was shaken.