Cambodian opposition senator goes on trial, accused of inciting chaos with Facebook comments

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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A Cambodian opposition senator was denied bail and went on trial Friday over comments he posted on Facebook criticizing a 36-year-old border agreement with Vietnam.

Hong Sok Hour faces up to 17 years in prison. His arrest on Aug. 15 was one of a series of recent actions taken against political opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Appearing in court in an orange prison uniform, a far cry from the tailored Western suit he was wearing when he was arrested, the senator from the Cambodia National Rescue Party said he has high blood pressure and other medical conditions that require medication he was not getting in prison.

"I will not run away if you release me on bail," said Hong Sok Hour, who has been held in pretrial detention since his arrest.

Presiding Judge Ros Piseth denied the bail request without giving a reason.

Human Rights Watch and other international rights groups have called on authorities to drop the case against Hong Sok Hour, saying he was wrongfully charged and that prosecuting him is part of the government's latest crackdown on the political opposition.

Hong Sok Hour was arrested after Hun Sen accused him of treason for the online posting, which included the purported text of a 1979 treaty with Vietnam that declared that their mutual border would be dissolved. Hun Sen — who was foreign minister at the time in a government installed by a Vietnamese occupation force that invaded Cambodia to oust the murderous Khmer Rouge regime — insisted the treaty was forged.

Hong Sok Hour was indicted on three charges including falsifying public documents, using fake documents and inciting chaos. The charges carry maximum sentences of 10 years, 5 years and 2 years, respectively.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party has been seeking political gains by accusing Vietnam of encroaching on Cambodian soil — a sensitive topic that has ramped up tensions at the border.

"Relations between Cambodia and Vietnam are politically sensitive, but they are no excuse for bringing criminal charges over a disputed document," said Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch. "The Cambodian government has already pointed out that the document was inaccurate and in a democracy the matter should be left at that."

Hong Sok Hour has denied the charges. He says he did not write the contentious document but downloaded it from a website and included it on a video he posted on Facebook, thinking the information was correct, according to his lawyer.

Human Rights Watch and others familiar with the original and posted documents say the problem was one of mistranslation.

"There is no evidence, though, that Hong Sok Hour himself created the inaccurate text, that he was aware of inaccuracies in it, or that his intention in making it public was to cause anything more than further discussions of the border issue," Human Rights Watch said in a statement. "An examination of the language used in the two texts strongly indicates that the version posted by Hong Sok Hour is not a forgery, but a bad translation back into Khmer of a poor translation of the Khmer original into French or English."

In recent months, Hun Sen has used his public speeches to deliver what amounts to arrest orders, which are generally carried out quickly. He said Hong Sok Hour's posting of the material "amounts to treason." Hun Sen has been in power for almost three decades, and while Cambodia is formally democratic, his government is authoritarian and known for intimidating opponents.

"The prosecution of Hong Sok Hour contravenes Cambodia's obligations on the rights to freedom of expression and opinion," Human Rights Watch said, adding that Hun Sen has used the case as a pretext to "crack down on the political opposition and demonstrate that he can arrest and imprison anybody, anytime."

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