(Bangkok) – A Cambodian court sentenced 19 opposition politicians and activists on March 17, 2022, after an unfair trial in which no credible evidence was offered against the defendants, Human Rights said. Watch today. The trial appears to have been intended to ward off political opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced 19 local leaders and members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), as well as a relative of the accused, to terms ranging from five to ten years in prison. Seven people currently abroad have been tried and sentenced in absentia and sentenced to ten years in prison on three unsubstantiated counts of “incitement”, “inciting military personnel to disobedience” and “conspiracy”.
“The mass trial and convictions of political opponents on baseless charges is a witch hunt that discredits both the Cambodian government and the country’s courts,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Foreign governments, the United Nations and donors should speak out against this attack on the political opposition and the last vestiges of democracy in Cambodia.”
Authorities held twelve of the convicted opposition politicians in pre-trial detention at Phnom Penh Correctional Center 1 (CC1) for up to two years, and released another politician on bail for health reasons. The court dropped charges against him, but the twelve detained opposition members were sentenced to five years in prison on charges of “incitement” and “conspiracy”. They will have to serve three years and eight months in prison, the rest of the sentences suspended. The charges against the 20 referred to several issues, including the formation of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM) overseas in 2018 and social media comments critical of the government.
On February 24, the Phnom Penh court concluded the final hearing of the trial in the case against the defendants. They are former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, Eng Chai Eang, Ho Vann, Mu Sochua, Nut Romduol, Tioulong Saumura, Tok Vanchan, Long Phary, Khut Chroek, Ngin Khean, Yim Sareth, Kheum Pheana, Thai Sokunthea , Keo Thai, Nhem Vean, Chum Chan, Sok Chantha, Pheat Mab, Sun Thun and Hin Chhan. The accused Chhon Bunchhat is the cousin of Hin Chhan and is not a member of the CNRP. The prosecutor sought and obtained arrest warrants for overseas opposition leaders, including Sam Rainsy, Eng Chai Eang and Mu Sochua.
During the trial, the prosecutor argued that the defendants had conspired to overthrow the government, pointing to the planned return of exiled CNRP leaders to Cambodia in November 2019. He accused the group, baselessly, of being part of a “secret network” that sought to disrupt the Cambodian economy, encourage the military to disobey the government and use the Covid-19 pandemic to undermine government credibility, thus sparking uprisings.
The prosecutor claimed that the group was responsible for the partial suspension of the European Union’s Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preferences in August 2020. The European Commission has found that Cambodia has violated key international treaties on human and labor rights underlying the agreement, including serious violations of civil and political rights.
Since the government stepped up its crackdown on political opposition after the ruling party-controlled Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, many activists have fled the country for fear of arbitrary arrests or other forms of reprisals against them and their families.
In 2021, Cambodian authorities prosecuted hundreds of people because of their political affiliation, for peaceful activism or for exercising their right to freedom of expression. The trial of the 20 politicians and activists is the first of what are expected to be mass trials in the coming months. Authorities have also repeatedly delayed the trial of CNRP leader Kem Sokha on unsubstantiated and politically motivated treason charges brought in September 2017. His trial did not resume until mid-January 2022.
After exiled CNRP leaders announced they would return to Cambodia in November 2019, authorities arrested at least 125 former CNRP members and activists inside the country. At least 78 faced politically motivated charges. While all but four of them were released on bail in December 2019, the bogus charges were never dropped and the activists remain subject to re-arrest.
Human Rights Watch has documented that more than 60 political prisoners are in pretrial detention or jail in Cambodia, including members of the political opposition, community activists, and trade unionists.
Members and observer states of the UN Human Rights Council are expected to strongly condemn Cambodia’s mass political trials and other serious human rights violations at the upcoming session on the situation of human rights in Cambodia on 29 March, Human Rights Watch said.
“Cambodia’s politicized courts have facilitated Prime Minister Hun Sen’s efforts to destroy the last vestiges of democratic freedoms and civil and political rights in the country,” Robertson said. “The governments concerned should do everything possible to reverse this assault on the Cambodian people.”