(Bangkok) – A Cambodian court convicted 20 opposition politicians and activists on March 17, 2022, after an unfair trial in which no credible evidence was brought against the defendants, Human Rights Watch said today. The trial appears to have been aimed at sidelining political opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced 20 senior and local members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), plus one defendant’s relative, to between five and ten years in prison. Seven people currently abroad were tried and convicted in absentia and sentenced to the ten-year prison sentences based on three counts of unsubstantiated charges 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 call out this attack on the political opposition and Cambodia’s remaining vestiges of democracy.”
Authorities have held twelve of the convicted opposition politicians in pretrial detention at Phnom Penh’s Correctional Center 1 (CC1) for up to two years, and released one other politician on bail due to health reasons. The twelve detained opposition members were sentenced to five years in prison based on “incitement” and “conspiracy” charges. They will be required to serve three years and eight months in prison, with the remainder of the sentences suspended. The sentence for the opposition member on bail will be fully suspended. The charges against the 20 referenced several issues, including the formation of the overseas opposition Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM) in 2018, and social media comments criticizing the government.
On February 24, the Phnom Penh court concluded the last trial hearing 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 defendant Chhon Bunchhat is Hin Chhan’s cousin and not a CNRP member. The prosecutor sought and obtained arrest warrants against the opposition leaders abroad, including Sam Rainsy, Eng Chai Eang, and Mu Sochua.
During the trial, the prosecutor argued that the defendants conspired to topple the government, pointing to the planned return by the exiled CNRP leadership to Cambodia in November 2019. He accused the group, without basis, of being part of a “secret network” that sought to disrupt Cambodia’s economy, encourage the military to disobey the government, and use the Covid-19 pandemic to undermine the government’s credibility, thereby causing uprisings.
The prosecutor claimed that the group was responsible for causing the partial suspension of the European Union’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade preferences in August 2020. The EU Commission found that Cambodia violated the agreement’s underlying core international human rights and labor rights treaties, in particular through serious violations of civil and political rights.
Since the government intensified its crackdown on the political opposition after the ruling-party-controlled Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017, many activists fled the country because they feared arbitrary arrest or other forms of retaliation against them and their families.
In 2021, Cambodian authorities prosecuted hundreds of people based on their political affiliation, for peaceful activism, or for exercising their free speech rights. The trial of the 20 politicians and activists is the first of what is expected to be further mass trials in the coming months. The authorities have also repeatedly delayed the trial of Kem Sokha, the CNRP leader, on unsubstantiated, politically motivated treason charges brought in September 2017. His trial only recommenced in mid-January 2022.
After exiled CNRP leaders announced that they would return to Cambodia in November 2019, the 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 prison in Cambodia, including members of the political opposition, community activists, and trade unionists.
Members and observer states at the UN Human Rights Council should strongly condemn Cambodia’s mass political trials and other serious rights violations at the upcoming session addressing the human rights situation in Cambodia on March 29, Human Rights Watch said.
“Cambodia’s politicized courts have facilitated Prime Minister Hun Sen’s effort to destroy the last remnants of democratic freedoms and civil and political rights in the country,” Robertson said. “Concerned governments should do all they can to reverse this assault on the Cambodian people.”