Phnom Penh Municipal Court has sentenced a university student to 18 months in prison, for a post on Facebook calling for a revolution. The decision shocked supporters and family members of Kong Raiya, 24, who prior to his verdict hearing on Tuesday thought he would be released.
Judge Heng Sokna, however, announced at the hearing Tuesday a guilty verdict and sentence of 18 months in prison, under charges of incitement.
Kong Raiya was arrested in August 2015 outside Khemarak University, where he was a first-year student, after he posted on Facebook a message calling Cambodians to join him in a “color revolution” to change the government.
Cambodia’s constitution protects free speech in theory, but in practice, the regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen is highly sensitive to dissent. The courts, widely criticized as politically biased, have shown a willingness to prosecute for criminal charges related to public speech, including for incitement and defamation, charges that most often fall on critics of the government.
Tuesday’s decision left Kong Raiya’s family in shock. His sister, Kong Makara, could barely speak to reporters after the sentence was announced, saying: “There was nothing wrong with what he did.”
Kong Raiya’s father, Kong Taing, called the sentencing “harsh,” and said his son had not actually sought to orchestrate a revolution against the government. “He should not have been convicted for such a long imprisonment, because this is a matter of an expression of opinion,” he said. They will appeal the case, he added.
Student leaders from Khemarak University have meanwhile sent a petition to Hun Sen, calling for Kong Raiya’s release, but they have not received a response.
Am Sam Ath, a senior investigator with the rights group Licadho, who observed Tuesday’s hearing, said the judge’s decision was unwarranted, especially because the Facebook post was not a credible threat to national security.
During his trial in February, Kong Raiya told the judge his understanding of a “color revolution” was that it meant peaceful gatherings and non-violent protests. In his Facebook post, he said: “Does anyone dares to launch a color revolution with me? Someday in the future, I will launch a color revolution in order to change the regime running Cambodian society; even if I am sent to prison or die, I am determined to do it.”