Updated: August 19, 2021 05:00 AM GMT
Supporters of Rong Chhun, leader of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions, hold placards during a protest in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Aug. 1. (Photo: AFP)
The Cambodian justice ministry has taken a swipe at US ambassador Patrick Murphy for his statement on jailed unionist Rong Chhun.
Murphy had said the judicial system should not be used to silence peaceful activists. British ambassador Tina Redshaw made similar sentiments on Twitter, adding she was “seriously concerned and disappointed to hear [of the] sentencing of Rong Chhun.”
“Any party who wants to help the convict should participate in the court proceedings and give a strong testimony. Do not accuse without any evidence,” Chin Malin, spokesperson for the justice ministry, said on Aug. 18.
He said the authorities had a strong legal basis for judicial proceedings and convictions and that court procedure was not used to restrict or suppress freedom of expression.
Rong Chhun was jailed for two years on Aug. 17 for incitement to disturb social stability after he issued a statement claiming that Cambodia was ceding border territory to Vietnam, a potentially explosive issue in this country.
Rong Chhun was also fined about US$100,000 in damages and was sentenced alongside Sar Kanika and Ton Nimol who, Rong Chhun claimed, were not political activists but simply a market vendor and a tuk-tuk driver who were caught up in protests.
Strong governments are open to hearing and engaging with a range of views from all of society
The money is to be paid to the government’s Border Affairs Committee, which had accused the unionist of spreading “fake news.”
The action follows the rounding up and jailing of hundreds of activists in the past year amid an outcry from human rights groups over a government crackdown on dissent.
“The conviction of respected union leader Rong Chhun today raises serious questions about freedom of speech protected in Cambodia’s constitution and [is] essential to the functioning of a democracy,” Murphy wrote on the US embassy’s Facebook page.
Redshaw wrote: “Strong governments are open to hearing and engaging with a range of views from all of society.”
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions and a member of the civil society group, Cambodian Watchdog Council, has been in prison since his arrest on July 31 last year.
“Rong Chhun is one of Cambodia’s most tireless defenders of labor rights,” said Naly Pilorge, director of LICADHO, a Cambodian human rights group. “His continued imprisonment at the height of a global pandemic needlessly puts his health at risk and he should be released and all charges against him dropped."