A court in Cambodia on Wednesday sentenced a Cambodian fixer for Russian state-owned TV network RT to two years in prison and a fine of 70 million riels (U.S. $17,200) for incitement, drawing scorn from rights groups and his family, who said he never should have been arrested to begin with.
Rath Rott Mony, 48, fled Cambodia for Thailand to seek asylum after helping a visiting crew from RT to make a documentary about child prostitution in Cambodia that was broadcast in October 2018, but was arrested by Thai police two months later and handed back to Cambodian authorities.
He had been detained for more than six months by the time Presiding Judge Koy Sao announced the Phnom Penh Municipal Court's verdict finding him guilty of incitement to cause discrimination on Wednesday, without elaborating, following the conclusion of his trial two weeks ago.
In addition to being jailed for two years, Rath Rott Mony was also ordered to pay 35 million riels (U.S. $8,600) each to plaintiffs Keo Malai and Tep Sreylin, who said he had promised to help them solve a land dispute and open a shop if they made up stories about forcing their daughters into prostitution for the documentary, entitled My Mother Sold Me.
Authorities have said the film contained fake news and damaged Cambodia's reputation.
Sam Tithseiha, Rath Rott Mony's lawyer, told RFA's Khmer Service that he will discuss the possibility of an appeal with his client, adding that he found the court decision unjust.
His actions [as a fixer] negatively affected society, but it made the authorities pay more attention to the issue [of human trafficking], the lawyer said.
Rath Rott Mony's wife, Long Kimheang, condemned Wednesday's verdict, calling it an example of the failure of the judicial system and vowed to continue advocating for his release.
My husband is being detained and I am living in hardship, she told RFA.
Pol Pot used to split people up and kill them, and now in 2019, the government uses the judicial system to split families, she added, referring to the leader of the Khmer Rouge regime, which terrorized Cambodia from 1975-79, killing almost a quarter of the population.
Seung Sengkarona, spokesman for local rights group Adhoc, told RFA that the judge had only listened to the plaintiffs during the trial, even though a lack of clear allegations against Rath Rott Mony should have been beneficial to the defense.
This is a severe sentence and it is extremely unjust, he said.
RT has said that Rath Rott Mony was hired solely as a fixer and interpreter and had no control over the narrative of the documentary, and that it obtained signed authorizations from everyone who appeared in the film.
'An affront to media freedom'
Rath Rott Mony's sentence also drew condemnation from Phil Robertson, deputy director of New York-based Human Rights Watch's Asia division, who said he should have never been arrested, much less tried and convicted, and called the charges against him an affront to media freedom.
The fact of the matter is Cambodia is trying to cover up the very serious poverty that compels urban families to encourage their daughters to engage in sex work to survive economically, Robertson said in an emailed statement.
The push to imprison Mony is an example of Cambodia playing 'shoot the messenger' of a person who told the international community about an inconvenient reality the government wants to hide, that the sex industry in Cambodia includes girls under 18 and the government officials are failing to adequately act to address it.
Robertson called on authorities to throw out his conviction and allow him to rejoin his wife and young son.
Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also issued a statement calling the verdict an iniquitous conclusion to a sham trail and calling for Rath Rott Mony's conviction to be overturned on appeal because of all the inconsistencies in the case against him.
RSF noted that the prosecution's case was based on the testimony of five people who said Rath Rott Mony paid them to appear in the film, but questioned the legitimacy of the claims, citing Long Kimheang as having said that the plaintiffs were clearly pressured or threatened into doing it by the government to intimidate other media outlets, so that they don't talk about undesirable subjects.
Prime Minister Hun Sen's government banned the American nongovernmental organization Agape International Missions in August 2017, one month after CNN broadcast a documentary on the child sex trade in Cambodia for which one of the NGO's representatives served as a guide.
RSF ranked Cambodia 143rd out of 180 countries in its 2019 World Press Freedom Index, down from 142nd in 2018, citing the crackdown on independent media in the lead up to last year's election.
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