A court in Cambodia on Wednesday convicted self-exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy in absentia of planning to cede national land to a foreign entity and sentenced him to life in prison, a punishment that is mostly symbolic since the government has blocked his return home several times.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court also banned him from taking part in politics for allegedly agreeing in 2013 to hand over territory to a hilltribe minority if he came to power, his lawyer, Yong Phanith, told The Associated Press.
The case began in 2018, when a Facebook page critical of Sam Rainsy posted a video of a 2013 meeting he had in the United States with Kok Ksor, a leader of the ethnic Jarai hilltribe who headed the Montagnard Foundation, a U.S.-based organization representing the interests of hilltribe minorities who live in central Vietnam and northeastern Cambodia. Kok Ksor died in 2019.
The prosecution said the video and additional evidence proved that Sam Rainsy violated Articles 27 and 440 of the Criminal Code for “handing over to a foreign state all or part of the national territory.”
Sam Rainsy and his supporters said it only showed that he supported self-determination rights for minorities such as the hilltribes and did not promise they could set up a separate state. They also pointed out that Kok Ksor did not represent a nation state.
The trial began in August, with Sam Rainsy letting court-appointed lawyers handle his defense, a sign that he did not take the charges seriously. In other cases, he has hired lawyers to mount politically charged defenses.
Sam Rainsy co-founded the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in 2012. He has been convicted by Cambodian courts of several offenses in what he and supporters consider a legal vendetta by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government to crush political opposition. Sam Rainsy has been in exile since 2016 to avoid serving prison sentences on defamation, treason and other charges.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party, the sole credible opposition party, had been expected to present a strong challenge to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party in the 2018 general election. But Hun Sen launched a sweeping crackdown on his opponents before the polls, and the high court disbanded the opposition party, and its lawmakers were removed from Parliament. Hun Sen’s party subsequently won every seat in the National Assembly.
Sam Rainsy has long been the harshest critic and most popular opponent of Hun Sen, who has held power for 37 years. He and Hun Sen have been bitter enemies for decades, and on Monday, in a speech at a university graduation ceremony, the prime minister said Sam Rainsy’s family comprised three generations of traitors. A day earlier, Sam Rainsy posted a video on his own Facebook page renewing his call for popular opposition to Hun Sen’s government.
Last week, a French court in which Hun Sen sued Sam Rainsy for defamation acquitted the opposition leader, ruling that although his claim that Hun Sen was responsible for the death of a former national police chief was unproven, it was a fair matter for debate because of public interest and political significance. Sam Rainsy also holds French citizenship and lives in France.
The issue of losing national territory is a provocative one in Cambodia. Opposition politicians have often accused Hun Sen’s government of allowing land to be annexed by the country’s eastern neighbor, Vietnam, its historical enemy. Several accusers have been convicted of defamation for such claims.