A Cambodian court has begun hearings in the treason trial of more than 100 members and backers of Cambodia’s opposition and then deferred proceedings until next year, delaying a case widely condemned as a move by long-serving premier Hun Sen to crush his political rivals.
A total of 121 defendants, all tied to the forcibly dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), were summoned to appear on Thursday, but just 34 showed up, with many in exile, convinced they would not get a fair hearing.
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Virtually all the defendants have been charged with conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony, which together carries a maximum penalty of 12 years in prison, according to defence lawyers and human rights activists.
Among those who were seen arriving in court were former opposition senator Thach Setha and Cambodian-American human rights activist and lawyer, Theary Seng.
“I have done nothing wrong… it’s a sham trial. It’s political theatre. It is a political circus,” Seng told reporters outside the courtroom.
#Cambodia: Municipal court kicks off massive trial to try some 140 opposition members and supporters for alleged attempt to overthrow the government and conspiracy. Access to the courtrooms is permitted to pre-registered individuals only. pic.twitter.com/cjm53wSbqS
— Chhengpor Aun (@aunchhengpor) November 26, 2020
“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 added, describing the trial as a sham scripted by Hun Sen’s government.
After two hours the judge split the case in two, following lawyers’ requests for more time to prepare. Some defendants sought permission to choose their own legal representation rather than use ones appointed by the court.
Hearings are expected to resume in January and March.
The government says the treason case is legitimate. Justice ministry spokesman, Chin Malin, said the trial would proceed like any other. “The court will decide it according to matter of law and matter of fact,” he said.
‘We have done nothing wrong’
Am Sam Ath, who works with the Cambodian human rights group Licadho, said according to copies of court summonses, many defendants are accused of being involved with organising a failed trip by opposition leaders, Sam Rainsy and Mo Sochua, that would have brought them back from exile last November.
Rainsy, the co-founder of the CNRP, has been in exile since 2016 to avoid serving prison sentences for defamation and other offences. He says the cases against him were politically motivated.
Ney Leak, 29, an opposition political activist who faces charges over posting messages supportive of Rainsy’s return, said she was “innocent”.
“These are serious charges. I hope the court will drop it because we have done nothing wrong,” she told reporters.
Security was tight ahead of the trial, with most media unable to enter what police said was a packed courtroom. According to reports, only pre-registered individuals were allowed access.
Mu Sochua, the former deputy leader of CNRP told the Reuters the trial “will be a showcase with a verdict already decided, not by the judges but by the regime”.
“More than 120 cases on the same date, the same time, by the same judges cannot be a fair trial,” she said.
In a social media post, Sochua also noted that while she and other exiled leaders have also been summoned to court, they are barred from entering the country.
“We cannot return to Cambodia without valid Cambodian travel documents. We want to defend ourselves in court. We demand a fair trial,” she wrote on Wednesday.
The CNRP was banned and its leader Kem Sokha arrested on charges of treason ahead of an election in 2018, ensuring Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party won every parliamentary seat.
Kem Sokha’s treason charges stem from accusations he conspired with the United States to overthrow Hun Sen – claims both he and Washington have rejected.
United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia Rhona Smith said since June 2019 more than 150 people associated with the CNRP have faced arrest.
“The mass trials of 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, adding the proceedings were part of a strategy to intimidate and discredit opponents of the government.
The continued crackdown on the opposition has strained Cambodia’s ties with western countries and prompted the European Union, a key export destination, to withdraw special trade privileges.
Experts say that has only pushed Cambodia deeper into the orbit of China. The US Embassy in Phnom Penh last week said it was watching the trial closely and freedom of expression was “vital in a genuine democracy”.
“We urge authorities to protect these freedoms,” it said. “And to take meaningful steps to reopen civic and political space.”