Opposition officials living in self-imposed exile must find their own way back into Cambodia if they hope to defend themselves against charges of “incitement” and “treason,” a government spokesperson said Friday, because they “organized a coup d’état” and will not be granted passports or visas.
In November, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court summoned at least 113 individuals connected to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to stand trial together, most of whom face charges of conspiracy and incitement to sow chaos in society—crimes punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Presiding judges later split the defendants, including many who live overseas, into two groups for hearings to be held in January and March.
Last month, CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua said she would lead party brass and activists back to Cambodia in January to face the charges, which they insist are politically motivated. However, members of the party in exile say Phnom Penh has canceled their Cambodian passports and those with foreign travel documents have been unable to obtain visas to enter the country.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan told RFA’s Khmer Service Friday that Mu Sochua and other CNRP members are not welcome in Cambodia, despite their upcoming trials. He said the government will not grant them passports or visas and they will “have to find a way to enter Cambodia on their own.”
“Not only did they not recognize the government, but they also organized a coup d’état to overthrow it by calling on the military to turn their weapons against the Prime Minister [Hun Sen],” he said.
“They have to resolve these issues,” he added, without providing details.
Phay Siphan’s comments appeared to suggest the CNRP exiles are already presumed guilty of the charges against them and that the government does not intend to provide them the right to defend themselves in court.
CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government, and 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 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.
Acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who has lived in self-imposed exile since late 2015, vowed to return 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.
Rights to nationality, fair trial
Mu Sochua, who holds dual U.S.-Cambodian citizenship, has said she will use her U.S. passport to return to Cambodia on Jan. 17 to face charges even without an entry visa, which the Cambodian consulate in Massachusetts has so far refused to give her.
Government spokesperson Phay Siphan said Friday that any CNRP member traveling on a foreign passport will be granted entry at the discretion of Cambodian immigration authorities.
RFA was unable to contact Foreign Ministry spokesperson Kuy Kuong or Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak for comment.
Mu Sochua told RFA Friday that the government’s refusal to grant her a visa or valid passport proves it to be “cowardly, irresponsible and in serious violation of the law.” She noted that Article 33 of the country’s constitution states that no Cambodian citizen can be deprived of their nationality, deported, or arrested and sent to another country.
“Not allowing us to return to the country is equivalent to withdrawing our citizenship and deporting us,” she said. “If this is truly a legitimate government, please demonstrate it.”
According to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the right to a fair trial combines many fundamental rights, including: the right to a court, the right to a public trial, the right to equality, the right to an independent and impartial trial, the right to an expedited trial, and the right to presumption of innocence.
Legal experts say these rights are interrelated, so any violation of one can also violate others. Most important, they argue, is that defendants be provided the opportunity to defend themselves in a court of law.
‘Friday Wives’ dispersed
Also, on Friday, authorities dispersed nearly a dozen members of the so-called “Friday Wives” group of weekly protesters as they attempted to hold a demonstration in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court calling for the release of their husbands—CNRP activists detained on incitement charges.
Around 40 members of the 7 Makara district security forces confronted the women as they held up photos of their jailed family members, demanding that charges against them be dropped and all political prisoners be freed.
Seng Chanthorn, the wife of former CNRP councilor for Kampong Thom province Sun Thun, told RFA that authorities kicked, pushed, and insulted the women gathered at the court on Friday.
“I insist that the court give us justice and release them,” she said, adding that she and other members of the group will only end their protests when their loved ones are freed.
“I want the government to solve the country’s political problems and stop arresting activists so that democracy can return.”
The 49-year-old suffered internal injuries in September when security personnel violently dispersed a similar protest in front of the court, slamming her onto a paved street and knocking her unconscious.
In the meantime, Seng Chanthorn said, she is having trouble making ends meet and constantly worries about the safety of her husband in prison.
After being dispersed, the women walked to the U.S. Embassy, where they handed petitions to staffers calling for an intervention in the cases of their family members.
Calls for intervention
Sok Bolima, the wife of former CNRP commune chief of Phsar Depot 3 Khem Theana, told RFA she was “very disappointed” with the security forces for suppressing citizens’ rights and threatening them. She said she submitted her petition to U.S. Embassy officials because authorities threatened to harm her 21-year-old daughter if she does not stop protesting.
“The actions by the authorities remain the same, and I continue to face abuse,” she said. “Where is the justice? Where is democracy?”
Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesman San Sok Seiha repeated claims used by authorities in crackdowns on earlier Friday Wives protests that they lacked permission to gather, forcing police to “maintain public order and protect security.” He denied that security forces had used violence or threatened the women.
Ny Sokha of the Cambodian rights group Adhoc said authorities should be helping to protect the freedoms of protesters as enshrined in the country’s laws instead of violating their rights.
He also called on the court and the government to release all activists and to bring an end to the country’s political stalemate.
“The government must address this issue and facilitate a political resolution in the interest of developing our country and creating a just society,” 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.