A prominent Cambodian opposition leader was yesterday convicted and sentenced to 18 months in prison for passing fraudulent checks, an early sign that the country’s long season of repression is set to continue under its new-look leadership.
In a hearing yesterday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Thach Setha, a vice president of the Candlelight Party (CLP), guilty of issuing several bounced checks in 2019, The Associated Press reported, citing Setha’s lawyer Sam Sokong.
The defense counsel said the court also ordered the 70-year-old politician to pay $33,400 to the company that filed the complaint about the checks, leading to his arrest in January.
While the Cambodian government will no doubt frame the case as an example of Cambodia’s “rule of law,” Setha’s arrest and conviction is consistent with a broader campaign against the opposition that marred the run-up to national elections in July. In October 2022, the same court convicted the CLP’s vice-president Son Chhay of defaming the CPP, after he claimed that the local elections held in June were marred by fraud. He was ordered to pay the party $750,000 in damages.
In May, the National Election Committee (NEC) announced that it was refusing to accept the CLP’s application for the national election held in July, for failing to attach a notarized copy of the party’s registration document with its application. The CLP claims that the original document was lost in 2017, when the authorities raided the headquarters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), shortly before it was dissolved by court order.
Without the participation of the CLP, the only meaningful opposition party, the elections were swept by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and functioned as an acclamatory prelude to the long-planned handover of power from Hun Sen to his eldest son, Hun Manet.
The lead-up to the election also saw the government arrest a host of CLP activists for calling on their supporters to submit spoiled ballots in protest, and issued fresh punishments for a host of exiled opposition figures, including Sam Rainsy and six other members of CNRP. The National Election Committee (NEC), which is controlled by CPP appointees, announced that it would take legal action against anyone calling for voters to spoil their ballots. The government also ordered local ISPs to block access to several independent media websites.
Setha’s conviction is an indication that the government will not reduce its pressure on the CLP, even now that the election is over. Also yesterday, Radio Free Asia reported that the Ministry of Interior had denied the CLP’s request that it reissue a registration letter so that it could participate in future elections.
“This goes beyond just a technical issue,” Candlelight Party spokesman Kim Sour Phirith told the U.S.-funded broadcaster. “It is a political issue. Therefore, even if we ask a few thousand times, we will not get approval.”
Setha’s conviction is the first major legal ruling issued against the opposition since Hun Manet took office last month. It offers another early sign that the new administration headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen Manet, despite its more youthful and Western-educated composition, will be much like its predecessor.