The charges are linked to former CNRP president Sam Rainsy’s unsuccessful attempt to return to the country in 2019.
Cambodia’s exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy has been sentenced in absentia to 25 years in jail for an alleged plot to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, a court official said, drawing swift condemnation from the opposition and rights groups.
Rainsy was convicted “for an (attempted) attack in Cambodia in 2019”, Y Rin, a spokesman for Phnom Penh Municipal Court, told the AFP news agency on Monday, refusing to give further details.
The court also stripped Rainsy of the right to vote and stand as a candidate in an election, the official said.
“Once again, Cambodia’s politically controlled judiciary make a mockery of justice rather than defending it,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Tuesday.
He added that the case against Rainsy was based on “bogus, politically motivated allegations manufactured by a dictatorial, single-party state”.
Aside from Rainsy, fellow opposition politicians Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang, were also sentenced to 22 years in prison, according to the government-friendly media outlet Fresh News.
Rainsy said the ruling could not be taken seriously. “It is simply a political statement borne out of weakness and fear,” he wrote on Twitter.
Rainsy’s wife, Tioulong Saumura and five other former senior officers of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which was banned in advance of elections in 2018, also received 20-year prison sentences.
“In each of these political show trials, the temptation is to say that Cambodia cannot sink any lower in its violation of human rights, but somehow PM Hun Sen and his colleagues find a way to reach a new nadir,” Robertson said.
“There seems to be no limits to the violations of human rights this government will inflict on the Cambodian people.”
1/2 A prison sentence from a court controlled by the government cannot be taken seriously. It is simply a political statement born out of weakness and fear. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is afraid of any risk of my returning to the Cambodian political scene. #SamRainsy pic.twitter.com/bq6aT21PVv
— Rainsy Sam (@RainsySam) March 1, 2021
In a statement, the United States Ambassador to Cambodia W Patrick Murphy said Washington was “troubled” by the sentences “given a lack of due process”.
“We urge authorities to reopen political space and allow all voices to be heard and to participate.”
Rainsy has been living in exile in France since 2015 to avoid jail time for several other convictions he says are politically motivated.
In 2019, he had attempted to return home, flying through Malaysia. However, he was prevented from proceeding with his flight to Phnom Penh.
In his statement, Rainsy said that the latest prison sentence showed Hun Sen’s fear of any opposition.
“Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is afraid of any risk of my returning to the Cambodian political scene,” he said.
“Hun Sen dreads the prospect of any free and fair election that would inevitably lead to the end of his current autocratic regime.”
Hun Sen is one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, maintaining a 36-year grip on power with methods that critics have said include jailing political opponents and activists.
He has said he regarded Rainsy’s planned return in 2019 as a “coup attempt”.
Since the election in July 2018, when Hun Sen’s party won every parliamentary seat in a vote without a credible opposition, the Cambodian authorities have stepped up arrests of former members of the dissolved opposition party, human rights defenders and dissenting voices.
Approximately 150 opposition figures and activists have been put on a mass trial for treason and incitement charges, mostly for sharing messages on social media platforms supporting Rainsy’s attempt to enter the country.
While many opposition politicians have fled Cambodia fearing arrest, the country’s main opposition leader, Kem Sokha, is facing a separate treason trial, which was postponed indefinitely in March last year.