The leader of Cambodia's main opposition party, Sam Rainsy, was sentenced to prison in a dispute about the border with neighboring Vietnam. But his supporters claim the case is politically motivated.
The municipal court in Phnom Penh on Thursday handed down a 10-year prison sentence to Rainsy because he displayed a map that had a different border between Cambodia and Vietnam than the one the government uses. During his trial earlier this month, the government's lawyer told the court that Sam Rainsy's action amounted to disinformation and falsifying of public documents.
The judges agreed, and handed down the prison term and a $16,000 fine. They also issued an arrest warrant for Sam Rainsy, who lives in exile in France.
The opposition leader had no chance for a fair trial, says his party's spokesman Yim Sovann, because the courts answer to the ruling party.
"Based on the verdict, not only one verdict, but the previous one, to my understanding and to the understanding of the people of Cambodia and the international community, this court is not independent," he said. "This court is used as a political tool to muzzle the opposition party."
The dispute dates back a year when Sam Rainsy and two villagers removed wooden posts marking the border between Cambodia and Vietnam. He received a two-year jail term for that and the villagers were each jailed for a year.
The two nations are in the middle of a six-year exercise to map their 1,270-kilometer border. Sam Rainsy has said Cambodia is losing land to Vietnam in the process.
The issue is a sensitive one for the government. Prime Minister Hun Sen maintains close relations with Vietnam, although many Cambodians are distrustful of their neighbor. In addition, Cambodia is involved in a tense border dispute with Thailand, which at times has turned violent.
Spokesman Yim Sovann says the government is growing less tolerant because it fears the opposition as the country heads toward the 2013 general election. He calls Thursday's verdict a "step backward for democracy" and he is calling for international help to prevent what he terms a slide toward authoritarianism.
"The international community has spent a lot of money to build democracy in Cambodia, to promote human rights, to help to build the rule of law," says Yim Sovann. "So if the leader of the biggest opposition party is in exile or facing jail term of more than 10 years, we can not say that Cambodia is democratic."
Mr. Hun Sen's government has long been accused of using lawsuits to silence critics. This month, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, issued a report saying the courts are corrupt and often beholden to the ruling party. Among other things, he recommended that public figures become more tolerant of criticism and stop using the courts against their critics.