The convictions of Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy and other exiled opposition politicians have been slated by an international rights group as politically motivated.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) called on the Cambodian government to quash the conviction in absentia of nine exiled leaders of the dissolved main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on charges of “attempt to commit felony” and “attack”.
The convictions were made at Phnom Penh municipal court on March 1. HRW said the case concerns unfounded allegations that all nine attempted to stage a coup by announcing their plans to return to Cambodia on Nov. 9, 2019.
Ahead of the exiled opposition leadership’s announcement of their intention to return to Cambodia on Nov. 9, 2019, the authorities arrested at least 125 former CNRP members and activists who expressed support for their return. While the authorities released at least 74 on bail in December 2019, HRW said that the baseless charges were never dropped. An increasing number have since been rearrested and are in pretrial detention.
The rights group said that the harassment and prosecutions by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen are part of a continuing effort to prevent the CNRP from participating in future elections and the country’s political life.
“The politically motivated trial and sentencing of Sam Rainsy and other exiled opposition leaders to decades in prison so they can never return to Cambodia is a page torn from the dictator’s playbook,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for HRW.
The court sentenced Rainsy, the acting CNRP leader, to 25 years in prison, and deputy leaders Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang to 22 years each. CNRP leaders Tioulong Saumura, Men Sothavrin, Ou Chanrith, Ho Vann, Long Ry, and Nuth Romduol received sentences of 20 years each. The court imposed total combined fines of 1.8 billion riel (US$440,000) and stripped all nine of their rights to vote, run for office, and serve as a public official.
HRW said that the court provided local non-governmental organizations monitoring the trial with inaccurate information about the date of the verdict hearing. They were never informed of the actual date and, consequently, no trial monitors were in the courtroom on March 1.
The case of Kem Sokha
In contrast to the hasty trial of the nine political opposition leaders in violation of their due process rights, HRW said that the authorities have continued to delay the trial of the CNRP leader Kem Sokha, who has faced unsubstantiated, politically motivated treason charges since September 2017.
The Phnom Penh court informed Sokha, who is banned from resuming his role in the CNRP, that his case was not considered a priority and his trial was unlikely to resume in 2021.
Presiding Judge Kouy Sao stated in a letter to Sokha’s lawyers on February 2 that the court “has been busy with the criminal cases of the charged and accused who are detained in overcrowded prisons.”
As all nine newly convicted opposition leaders are abroad, the postponement of Sokha’s case contradicts the court’s claim that it was prioritizing hearings of suspects in pretrial detention, HRW said.
The European Union condemned the verdict against the nine opposition leaders, noting that the “accused were not allowed to return to the country to defend their cases in court, in what appears to be a violation of due process rights, firmly established by international human rights law.”
HRW has documented the cases of over 75 political prisoners, including opposition members, youth and environmental activists, trade union leaders, and journalists. Many activists have fled the country because they feared arrest and sought refugee protection abroad.