A court in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh opened the trials Thursday of 59 people accused of incitement and treason, the first mass trials of at least 136 defendants associated with the country’s main opposition party that was banned in 2017.
Former lawmakers, members, or supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) were tried for their alleged involvement in acting party president Sam Rainsy’s plan to return to Cambodia from self-imposed exile on Nov. 9, 2019 to lead nonviolent protests against the country’s ruler Hun Sen.
The acting CNRP chief, who has lived in France since late 2015, was prevented from entering Cambodia through Thailand when he was refused permission to board a Thai Airways plane in Paris.
If found guilty, the defendants—who include several currently in detention—face up to 12 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 4 million Cambodian riels (U.S. $ 990).
Apart from the mass trial, former lawmakers, members, and senior leaders of the CNRP are also facing other separate trials related to the same return attempt in November 2019 with additional criminal charges such as “inciting military personnel to disobedience” and “attack.”
On Thursday, only 11 of the defendants presented their cases, and the court questioned just two of them regarding how they were able to communicate with Sam Rainsy over social media.
Defense lawyer Sam Sokong told RFA’s Khmer Service that his clients learned of Sam Rainsy’s repatriation plans through reports from RFA, its sister network Voice of America (VOA), and Radio France Internationale (RFI).
“My clients do not have any relationships with the CNRP leaders, nor did they share information about them… They used Facebook only to communicate with friends and family,” Sam Sokong said.
Authorities prevented at least one defendant from entering the court on time, causing that defendant to arrive late, according to Chak Sopheap, the director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), who monitored the trial.
“The defendants don’t understand words like ‘Sam Rainsy’s page’ or ‘share,’” Chak Sopheap told RFA.
She said that she was surprised to learn that the court made an issue out of the defendants’ “freedom to use social media.”
Prum Chantha, the wife of one of the defendants, told RFA her husband was charged with treason and incitement of causing chaos to society.
“Did he ever commit treason? Did he ever sell any government property like land, lakes, rivers, or mountains? He never did, all he did was just express his political opinion, that’s all he did,” she said.
Observers told RFA the trials are politically motivated. They have called on Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to drop all charges immediately.
“In a society that we call a democracy, I have the right to express my opinions, to express political opinions, but I am being persecuted,” Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American human rights activist who was on trial Thursday told RFA.
“I am being prosecuted and persecuted, but I am not afraid of this regime. He, Mr. Hun Sen, is not the owner of my life. God is the owner of my life. And he will not intimidate me with these charges. I will face them. Because they’re a sham. They’re not real charges,” she said.
After Thursday’s proceedings, the trail adjourned until Jan 28.
Police arrested two activists who were monitoring the trial, one of whom they attacked and injured.
Meanwhile Phnom Penh authorities deployed a force of about 70 officers to prevent about 100 CNRP activists from every Cambodian province from staging a rally in front of the court.
They arrested four among the group: Mak Sam An, Prauv Chanthoeun, Chov Kien and Keo Sophon, from Tboung Khmum Province, on the country’s eastern border.
Two of the four were charged with inciting social unrest, while the other two were arrested for gathering in front of the court without permission, San Sok Seiha of the Phnom Penh police told RFA.
He said that the police have already sent them to the authorities in Tboung Khmum.
“The main issue is that the meeting must follow the law. They need permission and they need a request letter,” San Sok Seiha said.
“They did not report their intentions to the authorities. So, we needed to deploy the in order to protect the hearing venue and to provide security and order to Phnom Penh,” he said.
Mak Sam An’s wife, Poy Chanly, told RFA that authorities did not notify her of her husband’s arrest. The 40-year-old woman called the arrest is injustice and an abuse against innocent people. She asserted that her husband had not committed any crime.
“There’s no problem, he is just a political activist,” she said, adding that her family will now have financial problems because her husband is the bread winner.
Meanwhile, a former CNRP politician who attended the trial told RFA he was attacked on his way home.
Thun Chantha said he was ambushed by people he did not know who cornered him on two motorcycles and beat him with a stick on his head and legs before making their escape.
“I can barely walk because my knee is swollen. My whole body hurts,” he said, adding that he is speechless over the attack because he only monitored the trial.
Soeung Senkarona, a spokesman for the local ADHOC NGO, told RFA he believes Thursday’s arrests were politically motivated threats meant to prevent people from showing their support for opposition officials in future trials.
He said he believes that authorities may arrest more people who monitored Thursday’s trial and urged authorities to respect human rights and law.
Over the past year Cambodia has detained more than 70 affiliated with the CNRP, charging them with incitement, conspiracy and insulting leadership.
CNRP Vice President Mu Sochua, a dual citizen of the United States who is named in the suit, told RFA that she plans to return to Cambodia Friday, departing from Lowell, Massachusetts to face the same mass trial.
Cambodian authorities have refused to issue her a visa so she can enter the country on her U.S. passport as her Cambodian passport was cancelled last year.
“Nothing has changed. I already bought a ticket,” she said.
“My return is not for me but for all Cambodia and it is a step toward justice. The government must be brave enough to restore the rule of law and provide fair trials to the accused.
Mu Sochua called the effort to keep her out of Cambodian cowardly.
“The defendant must present at the court. This is showing it is purely political motivated case… People should not blame Mu Sochua and Sam Rainsy for failing to return. People must follow up on the government. We cannot live in fear,” she said.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.
This post was originally published on Radio Free.