PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A Cambodian court on Friday convicted five Thais, including a member of Parliament, of illegally entering Cambodia but freed them with suspended sentences in a high-profile case that underlined long-standing political tensions.
The defendants had gone to the border in connection with claims by Thai nationalists that Cambodia is encroaching on Thai territory.
Judge Suos Sam Ath sentenced each to nine months in prison, but credited them with time already served and suspended the remainder. He fined each 1 million riels ($250) and allowed them to return to Thailand.
They were arrested Dec. 29 on charges of illegal entry and trespassing in a military zone after they crossed into northwestern Banteay Meanchey province. One defendant is a lawmaker from Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva’s ruling Democrat Party.
Two other Thais detained with them are to be tried separately on Feb. 1, with an additional charge of spying. They are the leader of a political pressure group, the Thailand Patriot Network — which claims that border territory held by Cambodia actually belongs to Thailand — and his assistant.
The group’s members in Thailand have been demonstrating for the release of all seven, accusing Abhisit’s government of failing to help arrested Thais. Their protests have attracted much attention in the press, but small crowds.
The case has its origins in a dispute between Cambodia and Thailand over land near a landmark temple on their border, but has evolved into a Thai domestic political issue.
The International Court of Justice in 1962 ruled that the 11th century Preah Vihear temple belongs to Cambodia, but the decision rankled Thailand, which still claims land around the temple.
The issue was virtually dormant until Cambodia applied in 2008 to UNESCO to have the temple declared a World Heritage site, an application backed by the government in power in Bangkok at the time.
Thai nationalists protested that the action threatened Thailand’s sovereignty, though their protests were seen as mainly a way of rallying criticism of the Thai government. Both countries’ leaders, defending their patriotic credentials, then built up military forces at the border, which have engaged in several brief clashes.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen also used the issue to build political support.