A court in Cambodia on Tuesday began a trial of acting opposition chief Sam Rainsy and 20 other party members charged with organizing a “coup,” inciting soldiers to disobey orders, and “incitement to cause serious social chaos.”
During the hearing at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, authorities arrested two relatives of defendants from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who held a protest outside the building demanding that their loved ones be freed and the charges against them dropped.
Thirteen of the defendants were summoned to the court from pre-trial detention, appearing one by one throughout the morning, according to defense attorney Sam Sokong.
Seven of the defendants include senior CNRP officials currently taking refuge overseas in self-imposed exile: acting party President Sam Rainsy, deputy presidents Eng Chhay Eang and Mu Sochua, Sam Rainsy’s wife Tioulong Saumura, and former parliamentarians Tok Vanchan, Ho Vann, and Ou Chanrith.
One other defendant, Svay Rieng province-based CNRP activist Hin Chhin, was released from detention on bail due to a serious medical condition and was not present in court on Tuesday.
Sam Sokong told RFA’s Khmer Service that the judge refused a request to try the defendants separately because their “charges are related,” despite the lawyer’s earlier complaint that a mass trial would require more time for each to testify. The court ordered the hearing to resume on Jan. 22.
“A large number of them have been detained for a long time—some for almost a year,” he said. “If we don’t rush to end the case, it will seriously impact them.”
As the proceedings took place on Tuesday, supporters and relatives of some of the jailed CNRP members gathered in front of the court, including women from the “Friday Wives” group that has held weekly protests to demand their release—in some cases leading to violent dispersals by authorities.
Security forces from the 7 Makara district pushed those assembled outside of the court, including women and children, and chased protesters away from the building, sources said.
Police also arrested “Friday Wives” leaders Sok Bolyma and Kim Sokuniza for allegedly failing to apply for a permit to protest.
Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesman San Sok Seiha told RFA that, as of the afternoon of Dec. 29, the two women were being questioned in connection with the gathering but did not specify what action the police might take.
Protester Seng Chanthorn told RFA that the 7 Makara district security forces “violently assaulted” the women protesters and children of opposition activists.
She said that instead of cracking down on relatives, the authorities should have allowed them to visit with the defendants and provide them with food. However, she said she was not surprised by the response and vowed to continue holding protests until all of the detained CNRP activists are returned to their families.
Call for political resolution
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of human rights for local rights group Licadho, echoed Sam Sokong’s call on the court to expedite the hearing of the defendants to refrain from infringing on the rights of those in pre-trial detention.
He also urged politicians to use methods aside from legal action to resolve the country’s ongoing political stalemate and called on authorities and protesters to find a mechanism for negotiation that would avoid violent confrontations and arrests. On Monday, authorities arrested four more CNRP activists on charges of “incitement to commit a crime.”
CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government. Two months later, the Supreme Court banned the CNRP for its supposed role in the scheme.
The move to dissolve the CNRP marked the beginning of a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Sam Rainsy tried to return from self-imposed exile on Nov. 9, 2019 to lead nonviolent protests against Hun Sen, urging Cambodian migrant workers abroad and members of the military to join him. However, his plan to enter Cambodia from Thailand was thwarted when he was refused permission to board a Thai Airways plane in Paris.
On Tuesday, he told RFA during a call-in show that the arrests and prosecutions of CNRP activists show Hun Sen is “afraid and panicked” because exiled party leaders called his bluff and have requested to be allowed to return to Cambodia to face the charges against them.
“They are afraid of the ‘people power’ by those who are supporters of the CNRP,” he said. “Hun Sen has arrested people ahead of a return by Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua to intimidate those who would otherwise stand up and welcome us.”
Eve of ‘farcical’ new trial
Tuesday’s hearing came on the eve of a trial scheduled for Wednesday of 15 human rights and opposition activists charged with “incitement to cause serious social chaos.”
Ten of the defendants were arrested in August and September in connection with protests calling for the release of Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Trade Unions and a member of the Cambodian Watchdog Council.
Scores of Cambodian civil society groups have condemned his arrest, demanding that the government release him and drop charges of “incitement” he faces over his criticism of the country’s handling of a border dispute with Vietnam. He faces two years in prison if convicted.
The 10 include CNRP activists Chum Puthy, Chhour Pheng, and Kong Sam An; members of the Khmer Thavarak youth group Choeun Daravy, Tha Lavy, and Eng Malai; and members of the Active Citizens for Justice youth group Mean Prom Mony and Venerable Keut Saray.
The five other defendants—who are not in pre-trial detention because they are abroad or their whereabouts are unknown—include outspoken CNRP activists Seng Bunrong, Ho Vann, Ou Chanrith, and Kong Saphea; and CNRP supporter and Khmer-Australian politician Hong Lim. The first four were included in a mass summons issued against the CNRP in November.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for New York-based Human Rights Watch called the scheduled trial “Hun Sen’s New Year message that he’s all about human rights abuses and reinforcing dictatorship for 2021.”
“The timing is no coincidence since diplomats and U.N. agency staff are away and unable to observe the start of what will certainly be a farcical trial,” he said.
Robertson said the cases are a reflection of how bad human rights were in Cambodia in 2020, with the freedoms of expression and peaceful assembly “regularly trampled,” as well as an increased use of violence by police to suppress peaceful protests and “bogus incitement charges” targeting people based on their political affiliations and exercising of their rights.
“It is imperative that foreign governments, U.N. agencies and donors publicly demand the Cambodian government end these show trials, and release the over 60 political prisoners already behind bars,” he said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.