University student Kong Raiya – on trial over alleged incitement pertaining to a 2015 Facebook post – expressed optimism to reporters as he entered the courtroom yesterday, only to hang his head as the verdict against him was read aloud minutes later.
In jail since last August after posting a Facebook status update calling for a “colour revolution”, the 25-year-old was found guilty by Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge Heng Sokna and sentenced to 18 months in jail, guaranteeing another year behind bars.
Following the verdict, Raiya, whose Khemarak University classmates on Monday pleaded for leniency in the case, vowed not to give up.
“I will appeal,” he said. “This is not justice for me; not only for me but for all Cambodian people.”
Kam Kong, Raiya’s 67-year-old father, said the 18-month sentence was unjust in light of his son’s free speech rights and the absence of any “chaos” as a result of the controversial Facebook post.
“Sentencing him to one year and six months, it’s too severe,” Kong said. “I would like the court to reduce the sentence to just half a year.” Raiya’s aunt Chhim Savath called for her nephew’s immediate release.
“He was just exercising his freedom of speech, speaking just as we do every day,” Savath said. “It was not a colour revolution because he was alone. If he didn’t have other people to join him, how can he make a colour revolution?”
So-called colour revolutions – a term used to refer to the predominantly non-violent protest movements that toppled several authoritarian regimes – have been a particular concern for the Cambodian government.
Though no such movement has ever emerged in Cambodia, top officials, including the prime minister, have repeatedly called on the security services in recent months to quash any such unrest.
Speaking last July, Hun Sen publicly called on the military to clamp down on any group attempting to displace the ruling party, saying that the “armed forces must be loyal to the government” in the event of a “colour revolution”.
Raiya’s case is part of what the Cambodian Center for Human Rights has characterised as the government’s rapid erosion of free speech rights online. Seven people, including Raiya, have been arrested over online comments since last August, and a further 23 have been publicly threatened.
In its review of what had previously been the “protected status” of online speech, CCHR found that “freedom of expression in the online space is frequently being unduly violated”.
Am Sam Ath, a senior coordinator at rights group Licadho, has been monitoring the case since Raiya’s arrest on August 20.
“It’s crazy,” was Sam Ath’s immediate reaction to the verdict yesterday. He added that Raiya’s arrest and trial were politically motivated and intended to have a chilling effect on free speech on social media.
“It will deter other students and young people from expressing opinions,” Sam Ath said. “It makes them concerned. This is a psychological tactic to prevent other young people from speaking out.”
Sam Ath also called into question the criminality of Raiya’s Facebook post.“ After Raiya wrote on Facebook, nothing happened.
There was no chaos, there was no damage. If we look at what he wrote, he just asked who wanted to make a revolution with him,” said Sam Ath. “It cannot be interpreted as an incitement to start a colour revolution.”
In September, Raiya told the Post that he had been calling only for a nonviolent demonstration and had “no intention to incite people against the government”.
Judge Sokna gave no rationale for the verdict or the sentence.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY JACK DAVIES