An argument erupting over politics and memes mocking political leaders in a group chat is generally a low-stakes affair between friends. That is, unless it occurs in Cambodia.
The dangers of venting one’s political frustrations online in an authoritarian context were highlighted this week, as a 16-year-old boy with autism spectrum disorder was sentenced to juvenile prison on Monday over content he shared on social media and messaging apps.
The case, say rights advocates, violates local and international laws, and illustrates a “witch hunt” by the Cambodian government against political opponents.
“This case shows the extreme lengths to which the Royal Government of Cambodia is willing to go to suppress any form of opposition and critics to tighten its grip on power,” Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, told VICE World News.
“Even if it means jailing disabled children in complete disregard for their most fundamental rights.”
Kak Sovann Chhay, the teenage son of a jailed political opposition figure, was sentenced to eight months in prison on Nov. 1 after a court in the capital Phnom Penh convicted him of “incitement and insult to public officials” based on posts he had made on Facebook and Telegram.
The boy, who has been in jail since his arrest on Jun. 24, will have served four months and 15 days of his sentence when he is due to be released this month. The remainder of his sentence is suspended, but he will remain on probation for two years, according to a report by the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LICADHO).
At a trial hearing in late September, Chhayy admitted that he had insulted government leaders in a messaging app and posted a photo of Hun Sen, the country’s strongman prime minister of 36 years, emblazoned with the word “betrayal” on Facebook.
“Jailing this boy for Facebook and Telegram messages is wrong,” Naly Pilorge, director of LICADHO, told VICE World News. “The government has shown there is no limit to their crackdown on perceived opponents.”
The wider ethics of convicting someone with autism have also been called into question by Chhay’s defense lawyer and rights defenders. Among other issues, Pilorge said the teenager struggled to understand the prosecution’s questions and “seemed confused.”
“The young boy’s mother shared that her son has autism spectrum disorder, yet the court denied multiple requests for an expert examination,” she said, adding that during today’s trial Chhay sat with his heads in his hands as his mother cried in the gallery.
Sopheap said that his conviction was in violation of several domestic laws and international treaties.
“Chhay was convicted following a trial conducted in violation of his fair trial rights and with complete disregard for his disability,” she said. “His conviction, therefore, violates Cambodia's international obligations under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with disabilities, and the Cambodian Law on Juvenile Justice.”
Chhay’s father, Kak Komphear, has been in jail since June 2020 on charges of conspiracy and incitement. He had been an official of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) until the Supreme Court ordered its dissolution in 2017 in a politically motivated case that left Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party to run the country unopposed.
Prum Chantha, Chhay’s mother, has peacefully protested in recent months with a group called “Friday Women” to demand the release of her son, husband, and other political prisoners in the country.
“Chhay's case is one of the latest illustrations of the witch hunt that the government has relentlessly led against opposition members and sympathizers, as well as their relatives in the past years,” Sopheap said.
Chhay has been jailed at Phnom Penh’s Correctional Centre 2, which holds juvenile detainees. He was denied bail and family member visits, contrary to the juvenile justice law, LICADHO said.
Chhay was briefly arrested in October 2020 for trying to collect flags from the abandoned CNRP headquarters, reported Radio Free Asia. He was released without charge after being forced to publicly apologize for “causing mischief.” Chhay said he was beaten by police while in custody, according to the report.
In April, Chhay was traveling with his mother when unknown assailants on a motorbike hit his head with a brick, fracturing his skull. His injury required stitches at a Phnom Penh hospital. No one has been punished for the attack, which watchdogs said resembles other attacks on the government’s political opponents.