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Cambodia’s top opposition leader jailed for ‘check fraud’

Candlelight Party vice-president Thach Setha is a victim of 'political persecution,' rights activists say
Thach Setha, vice president of the Candlelight Party, is brought to Cambodia’s Supreme Court in Phnom Penh, June 19

Thach Setha, vice president of the Candlelight Party, is brought to Cambodia’s Supreme Court in Phnom Penh, June 19. (Photo: Citizen journalist via RFA)

Published: September 22, 2023 11:05 AM GMT
Updated: September 22, 2023 11:45 AM GMT

A Cambodian court sentenced a top leader of the main opposition Candlelight Party to 18 months in jail in the latest blow to the party amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent in the Southeast Asian nation.

The party’s vice-president Thach Setha, 70, was convicted and jailed on a false check charge on Sept. 20 that human rights groups and party officials called politically motivated, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported on Sept. 21.

Setha was accused of issuing “dud checks” worth about US$33,400 in 2019.

Judge Chhun Davy said Setha was convicted for violating Article 231 of the Law on Negotiable Instrument and Payment Transactions, media reports say.

This is another blow to the party in recent weeks after the Ministry of Interior denied its request to reissue a registration letter so that it could participate in future elections.

The party was disqualified by the National Election Committee (NEC) from contesting in the national election held on July 23 allegedly for failing to submit the original registration form issued by the Interior Ministry.

The disqualification of the party allowed the Cambodia People’s Party of Hun Sen, who ruled the country since 1979, to win by a landslide in the one-sided election, triggering a flurry of condemnation from Western governments and rights groups.

“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.”

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

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 RFA 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.”

Thach Setha had been detained since January and his trial was closely monitored by embassy officials from the United States, Germany and the European Union. 

Setha is one of dozens of opposition leaders and activists facing a campaign of intimidation and legal pressure in the country.

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

In addition to jailing, the court ordered Setha to pay two court fines totaling US$2,000 and to pay US$33,400 to the company that allegedly filed the charge against him, RFA reported.

Next month, he is expected to stand trial on charges of incitement to social unrest and incitement of racial discrimination base.

During the latest hearing prosecutor Seng Heang questioned Setha 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. 

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.

Thach Setha walked away quietly as his wife and daughter began crying after the verdict.

His wife, Thach Sokborany, earlier said he is in poor health and has trouble walking.

“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 on Thursday.

Setha’s sentencing was more “political persecution” rather than law enforcement, said Am Sam Ath of the human rights group Licadho.

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