A court in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh sentenced 10 activists to 20-month sentences Tuesday on charges of incitement for their role in protests demanding the release of a prominent union leader, RFA has learned.

Seven members of the Khmer Thavrak youth movement and three supporters of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) were fined two million riel (U.S. $500) and their 20-month sentences were suspended to 14 or 15 months, lawyers and family members told RFA’s Khmer Service.

They were found guilty of incitement under Articles 494 and 495 of Cambodia’s criminal code, described by the American Bar Association (ABA) as “a vague charge that some say is left open to politically motivated misuse.”

Authorities arrested the 10 in August and September 2020, after they staged a protest during the trial of popular union leader Rong Chhun.

The labor leader was convicted in August and is serving a two-year sentence on the same incitement charges for his criticism of the government’s handling of a longstanding border dispute with neighboring Vietnam.

Sam Sokong, the defense lawyer for the 10 activists told RFA that he was saddened by the verdict, because the activists were only publicly requesting the release of Rong Chhun, and did not provoke social unrest.

The Khmer Thavrak youth activists — Chhoeun Daravy, Hun Vannak, Mean Prummony, Koet Saray, Tha Lavy, Moung Sopheak, and Eng Malai – and CNRP supporters Chum Puthy, Chhuo Pheng, and Kong Sam An; have been in pretrial detention for more than a year. They will be released next month, but remain on probation for two years.

Four others — Seng Meng Bunrong, Ho Vann, Ou Chanrith, and Kong Saphea — were sentenced in absentia to two years and fined 1,000 riel.

Domestic human rights group LICADHO reported that during the trial, the activists were mostly asked if they had permission to gather, and if they had been encouraged by someone outside of Cambodia or paid to protest during Rong Chhun’s trial.

Eng Vanndy, sister of Eng Malai, called the verdict an injustice.

“I looked at their faces. They couldn’t accept it. They are not guilty and shouldn’t accept the verdict,” she said.

She urged the court to drop the charges against her sister immediately.

The court made the verdict on the basis of politics rather than the law, Ny Sokha, director of the Cambodian rights group ADHOC told RFA.

The court’s decision to sentence the activists to jail terms equal to their pre-trial detentions cannot be considered justice, he said.

Last month, the World Justice Project, a Washington-based independent group that promotes rule of law, ranked Cambodia next to last — ahead only of Venezuela — in its global Rule of Law Index for 2021.

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