A Cambodian court has convicted 19 opposition politicians – including two prominent leaders in exile – on charges of “incitement” and “conspiracy” and sentenced them to prison, after a mass trial that rights groups have condemned as unfair.
In a decision handed down on Thursday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced the defendants, all members of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party to between five and 10 years in jail.
Rainsy condemned the court’s decision.
“The justice system has again been used as a blunt political took in an attempt to quash opposition to Hun Sen’s dictatorship,” he wrote on Twitter. “Opposing dictators is a duty, not a crime.”
The judge partly suspended the shorter sentences passed on more junior members of the party.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for more than 30 years, began to crack down on the CNRP ahead of the 2018 general elections amid signs it was becoming increasingly popular. Its leader Kem Sokha was arrested in 2017 – he is facing a separate trial on charges of treason, which resumed in January after a two-year hiatus – and the party forcibly dissolved.
“The mass trial and convictions of political opponents on baseless charges is a witch hunt that discredits both the Cambodian government and country’s courts,” Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“Foreign governments, the United Nations, and donors should call out this attack on the political opposition and Cambodia’s remaining vestiges of democracy.”
During the trial, the prosecutor argued that the group had tried to “overthrow the government” citing a 2019 effort for the party’s exiled leaders to return home. He claimed without evidence that they formed part of a “secret network” that sought to disrupt Cambodia’s economy and use the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine Hun Sen’s government and engineer a popular uprising.
As Judge Ros Piseth read out the verdict, some of the defendants shouted and raised their hands.
“We’re innocent people,” activist Sun Thum said, according to local outlet VOD English. “This is a political matter. It’s politically motivated.”
VOD said there were also scuffles with security guards outside the court where people had turned out to show their support.
The judge issued arrest warrants against the overseas defendants. Rainsy, Sochua and fellow opposition politician Eng Chhay Eang, were previously found guilty of an alleged plot to topple the government last year, and sentenced to prison terms of more than 20 years.
HRW estimates about 60 political prisoners are being held on remand ahead of trial including opposition politicians, activists and trade union members.
A number of mass trials of party members are under way.
The government has also tightened restrictions on civil society, making it more difficult for the country’s more than 5,000 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and associations to carry out their work.