Cambodia begins mass trial of 130 opposition activists

26 November 2020, 11:24

Cambodia Politics
Cambodia Politics. Picture: PA

The trial has been described as a sham by one defendant.

A Cambodian court has begun hearing the cases of nearly 130 government critics and opponents charged with treason for taking part in non-violent political activities.

The trial, relating to political activities over the past three years, was described by one defendant as a sham.

Only 33 defendants attended Thursday’s session at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Cambodia’s capital, with some believed to be overseas. Most are former members or supporters of the disbanded Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

Cambodia Politics
Relatives arrive at Phnom Penh Municipal Court where only 33 defendants attended the session (Heng Sinith/AP)

As the sole opposition party in parliament, it had been expected to present 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. The CNRP was forced to disband by the high court and its members 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 of the defendants have been charged with conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to commit a crime. Together these carry a maximum penalty of 12 years in prison, according to defence lawyers and human rights activists.

It was not immediately clear why only 33 defendants attended Thursday’s court session.

Cambodia Politics
Cambodian prime minister Hun Sen launched a sweeping crackdown on his opponents in 2017 (Heng Sinith/AP)

Ny Sokha, of the local rights group Adhoc, said that an unknown number are believed to be living abroad, including senior politicians and Cambodian labourers in neighbouring countries. Cambodian law allows trials in absentia.

Judge Ros Piseth agreed to split the defendants into two groups to make the proceedings easier. The first group will have its initial hearing on January 14 and the other on March 4.

The judge said he was adjourning the trial for now so that defendants who did not yet have lawyers and declined court-appointed ones could find representation.

Sam Sokong, one of the defence lawyers, said earlier this week that he feared his clients might not get a fair judgment because there are so many being tried at the same time.

“I am very doubtful about this arrangement and whether fairness will be received by my clients according to the international standard,” he said.

Cambodia Politics
Theary Seng, one of the defendants, described the court as a “political theatre” (Heng Sinith/AP)

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,” she told reporters outside the courtroom.

“This is not a courtroom. This is a political theatre, it’s a political circus.”

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,” she said.

Am Sam Ath, who works with the Cambodian human rights group Licadho, said that according to court summonses, between 126 and 129 people have been ordered to appear.

He added that many defendants are accused of being involved with organising a failed trip home by former opposition leader Sam Rainsy from exile last November.

Cambodia Politics
Security staff direct relatives at the court. The trial has sparked alarm amongst human rights experts including at the UN (Heng Sinith/AP)

Mr Rainsy, the co-founder of the CNRP, has been in exile since 2016 to avoid serving prison sentences on defamation and other charges. He says the cases against him are politically motivated and his 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.

On Wednesday, Rhona Smith, the UN human rights expert on Cambodia expressed serious concerns about the trial.

“The mass trials of CNRP activists appear to be politically motivated, lacking clear legal grounds and constitute a serious violation of the due process rights firmly established by international human rights law,” she said.

In a statement, she added: “This is not an isolated episode. Civic and democratic space in Cambodia has continued to shrink and there remains little evidence of political rapprochement and reconciliation.”

By Press Association