Thirty-six opposition party leaders and activists have been convicted on conspiracy charges in Cambodia for allegedly assisting attempts by exiled members of the opposition movement to return to the country.
In the latest mass trial of opponents of Cambodia’s authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen, opposition leader Sam Rainsy and several former top-ranking officials in his party, as well as supporters of the now banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), were found guilty at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday, local human rights group Licadho said.
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At least 33 of those convicted, including many living in exile after fleeing abroad, were tried in absentia and arrest warrants were issued. A single defendant was acquitted.
“The political activists were convicted on the basis of their Facebook posts and recorded private phone calls,” Licadho said in a statement.
The conspiracy charges related to alleged efforts by the defendants to help opposition leaders, including deputy CNRP leader Mu Sochua, return to Cambodia in 2021 to appear as defendants in an earlier mass trial.
According to Licadho, Mu Sochua was unable to return from exile after the government cancelled her Cambodian passport and refused to issue an entry visa.
The court’s “judgement is the fourth verdict in five mass trials that have been initiated against a total of 158 leaders and supporters of the former CNRP since November 2020,” Licadho said, adding that “many of the former activists have been defendants in multiple trials”.
Human rights workers have condemned what they describe as the ruling party’s weaponisation of the country’s justice system.
The now banned and disbanded CNRP was the lone legitimate opposition party that presented a serious challenge to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party, and had been slated to return a strong showing in the 2018 national elections.
Following the opposition’s solid electoral returns in local elections in 2017, the government unleashed a crackdown that saw independent media organisations shut down, journalists arrested, and the opposition party and its members eventually banned from office.
Cambodia – which has been run as a one-party state since 2018 – has been ruled by Hun Sen since 1985, making him one of the longest surviving leaders in the world.