Activists slam ‘sham trial’ of Cambodia opposition members

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A Cambodian-American lawyer said Thursday she was being persecuted for her political opinion as she and dozens of other government critics charged with treason and other offences returned to court in a trial criticized by rights advocates.

The more than 60 defendants are mostly former members or supporters of the disbanded Cambodia National Rescue Party, which had been the sole credible political opposition until Cambodia’s highest court in late 2017 ordered its dissolution.

Many of them are accused of being involved with a failed effort by former opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return from exile in November 2019 to challenge the country's long-time ruler, Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Fellow activists in exile have announced they will likewise try to return this Sunday although their plans are again opposed by Hun Sen's government, which has launched a sweeping crackdown on opponents.

Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer who has long been one of the most outspoken Hun Sen critics, told reporters on her arrival at court that she was not afraid of his regime and would not be intimidated.

Describing the charges as bogus and baseless, and the proceedings as “a sham trial,” she said that “the decision will be made by politicians, not judges.”

“I’m being persecuted for my political opinion, for expressing my opinion,” she said.

Hun Sen has been in power for more than three decades, and tolerates little opposition. An adroit political operator, he has employed both guile and force to maintain his position in an ostensibly democratic state.

A statement by Amnesty International said that along with related cases, approximately 150 opposition politicians and supporters are facing mass trials.

“These mass trials are an affront to international fair trial standards, Cambodia’s human rights commitments and the rule of law,” said the group’s Asia-Pacific regional director, Yamini Mishra. “This onslaught of cases is the culmination of a relentless campaign of persecution against Cambodia’s political opposition and other dissenting voices.”?

Misha said that the recent history suggests those accused have faint hopes of a fair trial. "When it comes to cases against opposition activists and government critics, political motivations consistently outweigh facts and law.”

Virtually all of the defendants have been charged with conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony, which together carry a maximum penalty of 12 years in prison.

Dozens are believed to be abroad, but under Cambodian law can be tried and sentenced in absentia.

The initial hearing by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for about 130 defendants was held in November, at which the judge agreed to split the defendants into two groups to make the proceedings easier and allow those who did not yet have lawyers and declined court-appointed ones to find representation. The hearings for the second batch are slated to begin on March 4.

Several Western nations have imposed sanctions on Hun Sen's government, mainly after concluding that elections in 2008 without the opposition were neither free nor fair. The harshest measure came from the European Union, which last year withdrew some preferential trading privileges.

Sopheng Cheang, The Associated Press