Date set for Cambodian opposition leader's trial in border row case


Mon, 11 Jan 2010

Phnom Penh - The opening court hearing against Cambodia's main opposition leader is set for January 27 over the destruction of border markers, national media reported Monday. Sam Rainsy, leader of the party that bears his name, is accused of destruction of property and racial incitement. The charges relate to an October incident in Svay Rieng province in southern Cambodia when six wooden posts marking the border with Vietnam were removed.

The Sam Rainsy Party charged that Cambodian farmers' land rights in the area are not being respected in the border demarcation process currently under way.

Sam Rainsy is out of the country. His lawyer Choung Chou Ngy told the Cambodia Daily newspaper, "I will go and join the trial on behalf of my client, [but] I do not know if he is coming or not," adding that his chances of winning the case were remote.

The court has also issued arrest warrants for five farmers over the incident. Two are in pre-trial detention while the other three have fled. The charges carry jail terms of up to three years, meaning Sam Rainsy could lose his parliamentary position if convicted.

The opposition leader was stripped of his parliamentary immunity in November over the incident in a vote that was boycotted by the opposition. His party insisted its leader has done nothing wrong and was simply standing up for impoverished farmers.

"[Farmers] are losing land because of these demarcation poles," party spokesman Yim Sovann said. "The people do not agree with that because they have only a few hectares of land to feed their families, and now they are losing everything."

In late December, the Svay Rieng provincial court issued an arrest warrant for Sam Rainsy after he failed to appear for questioning over the incident, which riled Hanoi. The two nations are currently demarcating their 1,270-kilometre border in a process that was scheduled to be completed by 2012.

Vietnam has significant interests in agribusiness, aviation, telecommunications and banking in Cambodia. In December, Hanoi signed an agreement with Phnom Penh that could result in investments worth billions of US dollars, including a deal to look for aluminium ore, known as bauxite, in Cambodia's border province of Mondolkiri.

Three opposition parliamentarians were stripped of their parliamentary immunity in 2009 over various charges. Critics accused the ruling Cambodian People's Party of using the courts to move against its perceived opponents in politics, the media and civil society.

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