Newly released court documents disclose that Cambodian refugee Sam Sokha – who was extradited from Thailand to the Kingdom yesterday – had already been sentenced in absentia to two years in prison for posting a video on Facebook in which she throws her sandal at a Cambodian People's Party billboard.
Human rights groups criticised Thailand’s forcible return of Sokha, who is recognised as a refugee by the United Nations, saying the move is a blatant violation of international law.
Sokha gained notoriety after the video, in which she is seen throwing her sandal at a billboard bearing the faces of Prime Minister Hun Sen and National Assembly President Heng Samrin, went viral on Cambodian social media last April.
Kampong Speu Presiding Judge Ouk Retkunthea, in a document dated January 25 that was published late yesterday by government mouthpiece Fresh News, said Sokha was convicted in absentia and sentenced to two years in prison and fined 5 million riel, about $1,250, for insulting a public official and for incitement to discriminate.
“I, Ouk Retkunthea, decide to issue an order to arrest and to detain Sam Sokha and order public authorities to seek to arrest her and bring her to be placed in the prison or detainment centre complying with the verdict,” the warrant read.
After the video caught the attention of authorities, Sokha fled to Thailand and was recognised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She was arrested by Thai authorities on January 5 and charged with illegal entry, with her lawyers filing an appeal on February 2, according to Human Rights Watch.
National Police spokesman Kirth Chantharith confirmed Sokha was arrested in Thailand for “overstaying her visa” and was “handed over to the Cambodian authorities yesterday”.
“She must face the legal system for her case, and she has to find a lawyer,” he said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said today that she would be taken directly to the Kampong Speu provincial court, though he did not divulge her current whereabouts. Kampong Speu provincial court’s spokesman and prosecutor were unaware of the next steps for Sokha, as she had not yet been brought to the court, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said he had no information on her case.
UNHCR’s Hannah MacDonald confirmed in an email that “according to reliable sources, a Cambodian refugee was deported on 8 February from Thailand”.
“We are seeking further clarification from the Thai authorities and urge them to investigate what happened,” she said. “UNHCR consistently advocates with governments to respect the principle of non-refoulement that prohibits sending people back to a place where their lives and freedoms could be in danger.”
In a statement, Human Rights Watch Asia Director Brad Adams said Thailand was “fully aware” of Sokha’s refugee status and that UNHCR and embassies had been trying to find another country in which she could resettle.
“Yet [Thailand] still returned her to Cambodia, where she is likely to face a prison term for expressing her political views,” he said. “It’s sad but not surprising that a military junta would do a favor for a neighboring dictator, but they should not cement their friendship at the expense of a refugee."
The case sets a "worrisome precedent" for how Thailand will treat the many other refugees currently in the country, Adams said.
The Asia Pacific Refugee Rights Network said it “strongly condemned” the move and contended the Cambodian convictions against Sokha were “both spurious and politically motivated”.
The group's chair Yiombi Thona said Sokha’s deportation marked “a shameful day for Thailand and a giant step backwards for refugee protection in the region”.
“Thailand should be held accountable for their actions and must not be allowed to brush this incident under the carpet,” he said. Although Thailand is not a signatory to the UN's Refugee Convention, the group says it “is still obligated to adhere to the globally recognised principle of non-refoulement” – to not repatriate refugees to any country where they face the threat of persecution or other serious human rights violations.
The conviction and deportation come in the midst of a widespread crackdown on dissent in Cambodia, with politicians, journalists and civil society figures targeted. Many opposition officials and activists have fled the country, with the majority believed to be in Thailand.