A court in Cambodia on Friday held a trial for 21 officials with the country’s banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on charges of “conspiracy” and “incitement,” prompting an outcry by the defense over what it said were “biased questions” and “presumption of guilt.”
Acting CNRP chief Sam Rainsy, his wife Tioulong Saumura, CNRP deputy president Eng Chhai Eang, CNRP deputy president Mu Sochua, and other party officials have been accused of “conspiracy,” “incitement to commit a felony or to disturb social security,” and “inciting military personnel to disobedience,” under articles 453, 494, and 495 and 471 of Cambodia’s criminal code.
Mu Sochua and fellow party leaders and activists living in self-imposed exile had planned to go back to Phnom Penh this weekend to face the charges, which they insist are designed to silence the opposition, but were blocked by airlines because Cambodia’s government had canceled their passports or refused to provide them visas to enter the country.
Instead, only 12 defendants were present at Friday’s hearing at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, including the district chief executive and the former elected commune chief of the CNRP, who are being held in prison.
More than 20 wives and family members of the defendants were forcefully prevented from entering the courthouse to monitor the trial by authorities who warned them with megaphones that they would be detained if they did not disperse.
Defense lawyer Sam Sokong told RFA’s Khmer Service that the court proceedings were divided into morning and afternoon sessions, during which the court’s judges and prosecutors peppered his clients with questions about a November 2019 attempt by Sam Rainsy, who has lived in self-imposed exile since late 2015, to return to Cambodia. His plan to enter the country from Thailand was thwarted when he was refused permission to board a Thai Airways plane in Paris.
“The prosecutors’ and judges’ questions were biased and presumed the guilt of the defendants,” he said.
“The questions focused on people gathering to receive Sam Rainsy on Nov. 9, 2019, as well as what they said were other ‘orders’ [from the CNRP abroad], but [the defendants] denied that they had accepted orders from anyone.”
Sam Sokong said most of his clients maintained that they are innocent of the charges against them, although some refused to answer questions during the hearings because of health problems or are “suffering from dementia.”
“They are just former activists and supporters of the CNRP,” he said. “They have no plans to overthrow the government.”
Sam Sokong said that the trial will reconvene on Feb. 4.
Ahead of Friday’s trial, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, slammed Prime Minister Hun Sen for what he said was a politically motivated effort to further hamstring the CNRP, which was dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in November 2017 over an alleged plot to topple the government with help from the U.S.
The ban on the CNRP marked the beginning of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on civil society, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.
“Since late last year, the Cambodian government has embarked on an endless series of mass political show trials against political opposition figures and rights activists,” Robertson said in a statement.
“The purpose is clear, to smash to pieces what’s left of the opposition CNRP in the country and silence all remaining critics still brave enough to raise their voice against the CPP’s single party dictatorship.”
Robertson said Hun Sen’s crackdown is meant to ensure that there is no legitimate challenger to the extension of his 35-year-long rule, with commune and general elections looming in 2022 and 2023.
“These trials have zero credibility because they are based on bogus charges manufactured for political purposes to sideline Hun Sen’s opponents,” he said.
“All PM Hun Sen has accomplished with his pursuit of these trials is to make a mockery of the Cambodian justice system and call greater attention to his dictatorship.”
Robertson urged foreign governments, United Nations agencies, and international development donors to demand that Hun Sen immediately end the crackdown against his critics and drop all charges against Friday’s defendants, “who are being judicially harassed based on their political affiliation and their willingness to continue to demand their rights to engage in peaceful, public assembly and freely express their views.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.