PHNOM PENH, Cambodia
A Cambodian court on Thursday began hearing the cases of nearly 130 opponents and government critics charged with treason for taking part in nonviolent political activities over the past three years, in what one of them described as a sham trial.
Most of those being tried by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court are former members or supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party. As the sole opposition party in Parliament, it had been expected to offer a strong challenge to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s party in the 2018 general election.
But in late 2017, Hun Sen launched a sweeping crackdown on his opponents. Virtually all critical media were pressured to close or tone down their coverage, and the Cambodia National Rescue Party was forced by the high court to disband and its lawmakers were removed from Parliament. Many people believe the court acted to ensure that Hun Sen’s party won by sweeping all the seats.
Virtually all the defendants have been charged with conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony, which together carry a maximum penalty of 12 years in prison, according to defense lawyers and human rights activists. Not all are expected to be in court as some are believed to be living abroad.
Sam Sokong, one of the defense lawyers, said earlier this week that he feared his clients could not get a fair judgment because there are so many supposed to stand trial at the same time.
“It is the first time since I began representing opposition group members that such a huge number as nearly 130 are standing trial together,” he said. “I am very doubtful about this arrangement and whether fairness will be received by my clients according to the international standard.”
One of the best known defendants living in Cambodia is Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer who has long been one of the most outspoken critics of Hun Sen and his government.
“I feel at peace, because I’ve done nothing wrong. This is not a courtroom. This is a political theater, it’s a political circus,” she told reporters outside the courtroom.
She described the trial as a sham scripted by Hun Sen’s regime. “It’s only a way to block the view of the international community of the real serious issues of human rights violations, of political repression.”
Am Sam Ath, who works with the Cambodian human rights group Licadho, said that according to copies of court summonses, many defendants are accused of being involved with organizing a failed trip by former opposition leader Sam Rainsy that would have brought him back from exile last November.
Sam Rainsy, the co-founder of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, has been in exile since 2016 to avoid serving prison sentences for defamation and other offenses. He says the cases against him were politically motivated, and gis attempted return last year was blocked by the government.
Hun Sen has been in power for 35 years and has often been accused of heading an authoritarian regime. Several Western nations have imposed sanctions on his government, mainly after concluding that the 2018 election was neither free nor fair. The harshest measure came from the European Union, which this year withdrew some preferential trading privileges.
Last week, the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia on its Facebook page urged the government to fully respect the freedoms of its people as cited in the country’s constitution.
“The United States is closely following a growing number of court cases targeting civil society activists, journalists, and supporters of Cambodia’s primary political opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party,” said the statement. “Freedoms of association and expression, and tolerance of dissenting views, are vital in a genuine democracy.”