PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - A Cambodian court jailed an opposition politician for five years on Friday over a Facebook post in which he criticized the deployment of troops to the border with Laos.
A dispute between the neighbors flared briefly this month before Laos pulled back soldiers from the border, well ahead of a deadline set by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Sourn Serey Ratha, 44, head of the small, opposition Khmer Power Party (KPP), was convicted of inciting soldiers to disobey orders, incitement to commit a crime and discouraging soldiers in his online posting.
Presiding judge Ros Piseth also ordered Sourn Serey Ratha to pay a $2,500 fine.
“The court has enough evidence to convict the accused,” Ros Piseth said in his verdict.
In his Aug. 12 post, Sourn Serey Ratha called Cambodia’s military leaders “thieves” who would carouse and sleep in air conditioned rooms while leaving their men to get killed, if a conflict with Laos did erupt.
Acting KPP president Soung Sophorn told reporters after the verdict his colleague’s online comments should not have been considered a crime.
The verdict is the latest tough reaction to criticism of the government as it prepares to face an election next year.
Opponents of Hun Sen, one of Asia’s longest serving rulers, accuse the former Khmer Rouge guerrilla of trying to silence critics and undermine the opposition ahead of the election.
The government this month decided to expel a U.S.-funded pro-democracy group, the National Democratic Institute (NDI), threatened a newspaper with closure and accused the United States of political interference.
U.S. Senator John McCain said in a statement he was concerned and disappointed by the expulsion of the NDI.
“This is just the latest action in the government’s campaign to silence proponents of democracy, harass civil society, and restrict the media in an effort to inhibit a free and open process in national elections scheduled for next year,” McCain said.
He called on the administration of President Donald Trump to send a strong message that ”the United States is committed to promoting democracy, human rights, and rule of law in Cambodia and throughout the world”.
Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Robert Birsel