Phnom Penh, Cambodia – A Cambodian court on Thursday commenced the first of two mass trials against members and supporters of the country’s outlawed opposition party for allegedly plotting an attack against the government in 2019.
Sixty people linked to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) were on trial on Thursday and another 77 individuals will face the same charges at a March 4 hearing.
They are all charged with “plotting” and “incitement”, and face a maximum of 12 years in prison if found guilty.
The charges are linked to former CNRP president Sam Rainsy’s unsuccessful attempt to return to the country in 2019. Rainsy, who has been in exile since 2015, was blocked from returning to Cambodia after the government issued a travel ban against him and asked its ASEAN neighbours to prevent him from boarding a flight.
There was heavy security presence on the streets leading to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday. The government has deployed specialised police officers and armed members of the Bodyguard Unit – elite security forces tasked with protecting Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen – to create a security cordon around the court.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights said several CNRP supporters and family members of the accused were prevented from observing the trial and that one man had been detained by police officers. Another local rights group, Licadho, reported four arrests outside the Phnom Penh court but could not confirm if they had been released from custody.
A panel of three judges kicked off the hearing by presenting findings from investigators in the case, alleging that there was a planned “structure” for Rainsy’s return and that people had been convinced to gather in large numbers to attack the government and undermine national security.
Only two of the 11 defendants were questioned on Thursday, with the court adjourning the proceedings until January 28.
Kak Komphear, a former CNRP party official from Phnom Penh, said he supported Rainsy’s return to Cambodia in 2019 and there was no conspiracy or plot against the government.
“I have no idea about this. I am speechless,” he said in court.
The public prosecutors and panel of judges questioned the two defendants over a Facebook Messenger group, allegedly used by the accused and senior CNRP leaders to plan the 2019 event.
The judges also appointed five lawyers to defend the accused. This appointment proved contentious after one of the appointed lawyers used an accusatory tone when asking Komphear, the former CNRP party official, to “not lie in court”.
Another court-appointed lawyer asked Komphear his views on Cambodia’s “peace and prosperity” – which is similar to the “peace and development” slogan used by Prime Minister Hun Sen to describe his party’s achievements.
The trial that first kicked off in late November, when the court held a chaotic hearing and was unable to ascertain the number of defendants present on that day. The judges quickly decided to split the hearings into two.
Chhun Bunhea, one of the accused, said he was disappointed the court adjourned the proceedings. The former CNRP official lives in the eastern province of Tbong Khmum, which is more than three hours away from Phnom Penh.
“If the court keeps up this kind of proceedings, I may not be able to afford the travel expenses to get here from Tbong Khmum,” he told reporters outside court.
Rights groups say Thursday’s trial is part of a continuing crackdown against the political opposition and Hun Sen’s detractors. After the CNRP was disbanded by the Supreme Court in 2017, hundreds of its officials and activists fled Cambodia for fear of their safety.
Apart from the CNRP, the Cambodian government has intimidated and obstructed rights groups and shuttered critical media outlets. Last year, police forces arrested dozens of political, youth and environmental activists, many will be on trials in the coming weeks.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party has near-complete control over all elected positions in the country after it swept all 125 parliamentary seats in the contentious 2018 general election. The CNRP was dissolved months before the national election, preventing any credible challenge to Hun Sen’s 36-year-long grip on power.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the Cambodian government’s decision to press “bogus” charges against the political opposition was aimed at stifling any remaining dissent in the country.
“Any pretense of a free and fair trial really went out of the window the minute these proceedings were announced,” he said in an email.