(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should immediately end politically motivated trials of opposition politicians and quash recent convictions, Human Rights Watch said today. The harassment and prosecutions by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen are part of a continuing effort to prevent the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) from participating in future elections and the country’s political life.
On March 1, 2021, the Phnom Penh municipal court convicted in absentia nine exiled leaders of the dissolved CNRP on charges of “attempt to commit felony” and “attack” under articles 27 and 451 of Cambodia’s penal code. The case concerns unfounded allegations that all nine attempted to stage a coup by announcing their plans to return to Cambodia on November 9, 2019.
“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 at Human Rights Watch. “Governments in Japan, Europe, and the United States should recognize the depths of Cambodia’s human rights crisis and impose targeted sanctions against the government officials responsible.”
The court sentenced Sam 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.
The court provided local nongovernmental 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.
In contrast to the hasty trial of the nine political opposition leaders in violation of their due process rights, 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, Human Rights Watch 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.”
In recent years, Cambodian authorities have banned the CNRP and staged political trials of dozens of party leaders. In 2021, the government has started a series of mass trials against opposition figures based on their political affiliation and against activists engaged in peaceful activism and expression. Human Rights Watch 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.
Ahead of the exiled opposition leadership’s announcement of their intention to return to Cambodia on November 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, the baseless charges were never dropped. An increasing number have since been rearrested and are in pretrial detention.
“The prosecutions of senior opposition figures are the cutting edge of Hun Sen’s latest crackdown on dissent, with many more trials scheduled in which guilty verdicts and long prison sentences are a foregone conclusion,” Robertson said. “Legislators around the world should denounce the unjust case against Sam Rainsy and his colleagues, and speak out in support of democracy and human rights in Cambodia.”