Cambodia convicts opposition politicians in ‘unfair’ mass trial | Political news

Trial involving exiled leaders Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua among several members targeting the forcibly disbanded Cambodian National Rescue Party.

A Cambodian court has convicted 19 opposition politicians – including two prominent exiled leaders – of ‘incitement’ and ‘conspiracy’ and sentenced them to prison, following a mass trial that advocacy groups rights condemned as unjust.

In a ruling on Thursday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced the defendants, all members of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, to terms ranging from five to 10 years in prison.

The longer sentences were given to seven leaders in exile abroad, including former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy and deputy leader Mu Sochua, who were tried in their absence.

Rainsy condemned the court’s decision.

“The judiciary was again used as a brutal political coup in an attempt to crush opposition to Hun Sen’s dictatorship,” he wrote on Twitter. “Opposing dictators is a duty, not a crime.”

The judge partly suspended the shorter sentences handed down to the party’s most junior members.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for more than 30 years, began cracking down on the CNRP ahead of the 2018 general election amid signs it was growing in popularity. Its leader Kem Sokha was arrested in 2017 – he faces a separate treason trial, which resumed in January after a two-year hiatus – and the party was forcibly dissolved.

“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 director of Human Rights Watch for Human Rights Watch. Asia, in a press release.

“Foreign governments, the United Nations and donors should speak out against this attack on the political opposition and the last vestiges of democracy in Cambodia.”

Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha waves from inside the court building as his trial for alleged treason resumed in January [File: Cindy Liu/Reuters]

During the trial, the prosecutor argued that the group tried to “overthrow the government”, citing a 2019 effort to bring exiled party leaders home. He claimed without evidence that they were part of a “secret network” that sought to disrupt Cambodia’s economy and use the COVID-19 pandemic to undermine Hun Sen’s government and stage a popular uprising.

As Judge Ros Piseth read the verdict, some of the defendants shouted and raised their hands.

“We are innocent people,” said activist Sun Thum, according to local media VOD English. “It’s a political thing. It’s politically motivated.

VOD said there were also scuffles with security guards outside the court where people showed up to show their support.

The judge issued arrest warrants for the foreign defendants. Rainsy, Sochua, and fellow opposition politician Eng Chhay Eang, had previously been convicted of an alleged plot to overthrow the government last year and sentenced to prison terms of more than 20 years.

HRW estimates that around 60 political prisoners are in pre-trial detention, including opposition politicians, activists and trade unionists.

A number of mass trials of party members are ongoing.

The government has also tightened restrictions on civil society, making it harder for the country’s more than 5,000 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and associations to carry out their work.

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