PHNOM PENH – A Cambodian activist wept in frustration Monday after learning her autistic teenage son, imprisoned for comments critical of the government he made on social media, would not be released as anticipated in a case that has drawn global attention.
Prum Chantha told disappointed supporters who had gathered with her early in the day outside Prey Sar prison on the outskirts of Phnom Penh that authorities said her son's time served had been miscounted, and that he would instead be released Wednesday.
“My son would have been feeling so excited when hearing he would be freed today and knowing that I was here with the others to welcome him, but now they’re keeping him in jail for two more days,” she said.
“Why would the court keep him in jail?”
Her son, 16-year-old Kak Sovannchhay, was convicted last week of incitement to commit a felony and public insult for comments he had made in a Telegram chat group in June defending his father, a senior political opposition member who is himself in custody facing charges, and for sharing Facebook posts criticizing Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Kak Sovannchhay was sentenced to eight months in prison but he had been in custody since June. Under Cambodian sentencing guidelines including credit for time served, he was scheduled for release this week and the family had been told it would take place Monday.
In a statement after his conviction, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court said that his age had been a factor in reducing his jail time, and said that it had received no medical confirmation of his autism during the trial.
Observers said, however, that during the trial, the court refused two requests to evaluate the boy’s disability and support needs.
Many criticized the verdict, including U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy who said in a Twitter post that the case seemed to be “politically motivated.”
“How does jailing the teenage son of an opposition figure demonstrate respect for human rights?” Murphy wrote.
Prum Chantha is a member of the group Friday Wives, which holds protests to demand the release of their husbands who have been jailed for expressing their views critical of Hun Sen’s government. Her husband, Kak Komphear, has been in detention since May 2020.
She said Monday that she had no intention of backing down, despite her son's prosecution.
“The authorities wanted to intimidate us and wanted us to stop opposing them,” she said.
The posts the teen made came in response to others calling his father a traitor, she said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has been in power for 36 years and has often been accused of heading an authoritarian regime and using the judicial system to help stifle opposition.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, urged Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne to bring up the case and others with Cambodian officials before she concludes her two-day trip to the country later Monday.
“Penalizing a boy with mental disabilities because of the activities of his father shows just how far the human rights situation in Cambodia has deteriorated,” he said in a written statement.