Theary Seng, a prominent Cambodian American lawyer, and dozens of members of Cambodia’s banned opposition party have been convicted of treason in a controversial mass trial over a failed attempt by the party’s leader to return home in 2019.
The Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) was forcibly dissolved after a strong showing in local elections in 2017 and its co-leader, Kem Sohka, was charged with treason.
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The party’s members and supporters have since been targeted in a number of mass trials that have left Cambodia a virtual one-party state under Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for 37 years.
The latest case was related to a plan by Sam Rainsy, another party leader, to return from exile in 2019.
Rainsy’s attempt was blocked by the government, while Theary Seng and most of the other defendants were accused of organising the trip – charges they denied.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Theary Seng and most of the others guilty of conspiracy to commit treason, defence lawyer Choung Chou Ngy said.
Theary Seng, who arrived at court dressed as ‘Lady Liberty’, was sentenced to six years in jail, and the others received sentences of between five and eight years. Rainsy, who lives in France, was also among those sentenced, and was given an eight year jail term.
“The mass trials agains political opposition members are really about preventing any electoral challenge to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s rule, but they have also come to symbolize the death of Cambodia’s democracy,” said Human Rights Watch’s Asia deputy director Phil Robertson after the verdicts were announced.
Standing outside the court as the verdict was announced, Theary Seng said she wanted her arrest to be public and “not in the shadow”. Journalists saw at least three police officers approach the lawyer, hold her hand and body, and push her into a waiting police truck shortly after the verdict was delivered.
There were scuffles between police and her supporters.
“By detaining Theary on plainly fabricated national security charges, Hun Sen has violated a litany of her rights – and dealt yet another blow to Cambodia’s civic space,” Jared Genser, Theary Seng’s international counsel said in a statement. “It is clear that Hun Sen feels greatly threatened by this courageous woman who speaks truth to power.”
The dissolution of the CNRP left Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party with all the seats in the national assembly following the 2018 general election.
LICAHDO, a Cambodian human rights group, said that almost all the defendants had been tried in asbentia, and that “Facebook posts expressing support for the former opposition party or democratic principles” made up the bulk of the prosecution’s evidence against the group.
“Clear links were not made between the evidence accepted, each individual defendant and each element of the charges,” it said, noting that the judge did not provide any analysis to the decision.
Genser called for Theary Seng’s immediate release, describing her as as the “newest political prisoner of the Hun Sen regime”.