A Cambodian court has convicted 19 political opposition leaders of trying to overthrow the government, following a case that a human rights group called “fake”.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday found members of the now disbanded Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and a relative of a member guilty of inciting, attempting to induce military personnel to disobey and conspiracy, reports the AP. Seven defendants, including former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, currently living abroad have been tried in absentia. All risk 5 to 10 years in prison.
The sentences were swiftly condemned by Human Rights Watch, one of several advocacy groups that have long criticized Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s treatment of political opponents.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling party are using these bogus trials to close the door on any possible return of exiled CNRP leaders and to eliminate all remaining roots of the opposition party in the country by imprisoning politicians and activists. who dare to stay in Cambodia,” Phil Robertson, HRW’s deputy director for Asia, told NPR.
“This is to ensure that the CNRP networks are completely crushed before the communal elections scheduled for June so that there are no possible political challenges,” he said.
The prosecution accused the defendants of conspiring to overthrow the current government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen on several occasions, including using the pandemic to undermine the credibility of the current regime by spreading false and inflammatory information.
“It’s a sick trick. [They] using freedom of speech rights but that freedom of speech was hidden behind a ruse,” Deputy Prosecutor Seng Heang said during the trial, according to VOD English.
The group has also been accused of having a ‘secret network’ and blamed for the partial suspension of the European Union’s ‘Everything But Arms’ trade deal with Cambodia, which was revoked in 2020 on security grounds. human and labor rights.
“The judiciary has again been used as a brutal political tool in an attempt to crush opposition to Hun Sen’s dictatorship. Opposing dictators is a duty, not a crime,” tweeted Sam Rainsy, the leader exiled from the CNRP who has lived in France since 2005. in reaction to Thursday’s convictions.
His failed attempt to return to Cambodia in 2019 was also cited by the prosecutor as an example of the opposition trying to rally the people to overthrow the government. Rainsy accuses Prime Minister Hun Sen of blocking him from the country and has since vowed to attempt another return home.
This latest trial is just the first of several mass trials expected, following the Cambodian government’s prosecution in 2020 of hundreds of dissidents and political activists.
Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, has been in office for more than three decades. Over the years, human rights groups have accused Hun Sen of clamping down, with growing pressure, on dissidents, the media and rights organizations he accuses of trying to overthrow his government.
In 2017, Cambodia experienced the harshest government crackdown in nearly 20 years, Joshua Kurlantzick, senior Southeast Asia researcher at the Council on Foreign Relations, told NPR. That year, one of Cambodia’s largest English dailies was shut down for allegedly owing back taxes, main opposition leader Kem Sokah was arrested and his opposition party CNRP was been dissolved. Experts say this was all likely due to the growing popularity of the opposition movement.
In national elections the following year, Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all 125 parliamentary seats. The next legislative elections are scheduled for 2023.
“Cambodia’s politicized courts have facilitated Prime Minister Hun Sen’s efforts to destroy the last vestiges of democratic freedoms and civil and political rights in the country,” Robertson said in a separate statement released by HRW. “The governments concerned should do everything they can to reverse this assault on the Cambodian people.”