Cambodian opposition leader convicted, sentenced to 10 years in absentia for dishonoring govt

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia's main opposition party leader was convicted in absentia Thursday and sentenced to 10 years in prison for a politically sensitive comment about a border dispute, in what critics said was another example of the government's intimidation of its opponents.

Sam Rainsy, who is living in exile in Paris, was convicted of spreading false information about a border dispute with Vietnam. The lawsuit was filed in February after Sam Rainsy questioned whether the border had been incorrectly marked by the government to Cambodia's disadvantage.

The conviction is the second this year for Sam Rainsy, who heads the sole opposition party in parliament and is a fierce, longtime critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

In January, a court sentenced Sam Rainsy to two years in prison for a political protest in which border markers were uprooted along the frontier with Vietnam. He led the protest last year to dramatize his claim that Vietnam is encroaching on Cambodian territory, an issue he often raises to garner public support.

Hun Sen was installed after a Vietnamese invasion ousted the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979. He is sympathetic to Hanoi, while part of Sam Rainsy's support comes from appealing to traditional anti-Vietnamese sentiment among Cambodians who don't trust their much larger neighbor.

In an e-mailed comment forwarded by his Sam Rainsy Party, the opposition leader charged that the action against him was the result of pressure from Hanoi.

He also accused the court of being a political instrument, saying that "Everybody ... rightly says that the judiciary in this country is everything but independent, being only a political tool for the authoritarian ruling party to silence any critical voices."

Thursday's verdict was read out publicly at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, though the trial itself was closed to the public.

"The acts committed by the offender seriously affected the honor of the government," said Judge Ke Sakhan.

The judge also ordered Sam Rainsy to pay 60 million riel ($14,000) for the government's legal costs and another fine of 5 million riel ($1,200).

Hun Sen described Sam Rainsy's comments earlier this year as treachery. The prime minister said that Cambodia already has a volatile border dispute with Thailand on its northern and western frontiers, so causing trouble with Vietnam could open up a potential second area of confrontation.

Hun Sen's government has repeatedly been accused of filing lawsuits to intimidate critics in the opposition and the press. The New York-based group Human Rights Watch has said the prime minister has "a long history of trying to muzzle Cambodia's political opposition and undermine the independence of the legal profession."