Updated: June 18, 2021 05:16 AM GMT
Kea Sokun was jailed after releasing songs critical of PM Hun Sen. (Photo: Twitter)
Cambodian rapper Kea Sokun will remain behind bars after a court upheld his 18-month jail sentence for releasing songs critical of Prime Minister Hun Sen, his handling of border disputes and an economic decline that emerged prior to the pandemic.
The appellate court in the western province of Battambang ruled the 23-year-old rapper must serve his entire 18-month sentence, nine months of which he has already served. However, he could be released within two months as part of the sentence was suspended.
His father Phal Kea told the Radio Free Asia Khmer Service that his son had not committed any crimes and that the verdict was unjust.
“We thought the appeals court would drop the charges or reduce the prison term but instead the court upheld the verdict,” he said. “We are so disappointed. I am sad because it is very unjust, I cannot believe the court upheld this verdict.”
Kea Sokun and fellow rapper Long Puthera were arrested in September 2020 in the northwestern province of Siem Reap and charged with incitement. Similar charges have been laid against opposition politicians, journalists and NGO workers who have upset the authorities.
His rap song Dey Khmer (Khmer Land) was posted on YouTube and had notched up 1.3 million views by the time of his arrest. Since then the number of views has risen to more than 4 million.
Frivolous criminal charges are used to stifle dissidents and critical voices
“If we run out of land, there is nothing left,” Kea Sokun raps. “Listen to me calmly: Wake up, we are heroes, handcuffed to catch thieves. Destroy the exploiters, put them in jail and lock them up. Take our freedom. Don’t be afraid, do not panic.”
The court decision sends a powerful message to Cambodian youth that criticism of Hun Sen is unacceptable as his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) positions itself for commune elections next year and the national ballot in 2023.
The prime minister launched a crackdown on the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, NGOs and the independent press ahead of elections in 2018. The CPP then won all 125 seats contested in the National Assembly.
That triggered an exodus of Western business interests, which impacted on the economy — a situation made all the worse by the withdrawal of European trade perks in response to the election controversy and the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The American Bar Association was also critical of the verdict, saying the rapper's arrest was part of a broader crackdown on young activists and was not an aberration.
“Frivolous criminal charges are used to stifle dissidents and critical voices. Although Cambodia is a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliamentary body, one ruling party has dominated the political system for decades,” it said in a statement.