Drop Charges Against Cambodian Opposition Members, Rights Groups Say on Eve of Trial

Cambodia should immediately and unconditionally drop all charges against hundreds of officials and supporters of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), observers said on the eve of the first of two mass trials for alleged crimes of “incitement” and “conspiracy.”

In a statement Wednesday, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said that as several of the defendants—including APHR member and CNRP deputy president Mu Sochua—are currently living in exile, authorities should allow for their safe return to Cambodia.

Mu Sochua has said she will lead a group of CNRP brass and activists back to Cambodia to defend themselves against the charges, despite the government refusing to validate their passports or issue them visas.

“After years of cementing the country as a one-party state, the unprecedented number of CNRP members and activists currently on trial shows how the ruling regime in Cambodia will stop at nothing until every last voice of political dissent is wiped out,” said Kasit Piromya, APHR board member and former Thai foreign minister.

“How can it be a crime for merely associating (with) or supporting a political party? A multi-party political system is crucial in any democratic society to ensure proper oversight of the government, and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration is clear that they will not tolerate anything of this sort.”

On Thursday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court plans to proceed with a mass trial of at least 136 former lawmakers, members, or supporters of the CNRP for their alleged involvement in acting party president Sam Rainsy’s plan to return to Cambodia from self-imposed exile on Nov. 9, 2019 to lead nonviolent protests against Hun Sen. The acting CNRP chief, who has lived in France since late 2015, was prevented from entering Cambodia through Thailand when he was refused permission to board a Thai Airways plane in Paris.

If found guilty, the defendants—who include several currently in detention—face up to 12 years’ imprisonment and a fine of 4 million Cambodian riels (U.S. $ 990). Apart from the mass trial, former lawmakers, members, and senior leaders of the CNRP are also facing other separate trials related to the same purported return attempt in November 2019 with additional criminal charges such as “inciting military personnel to disobedience” and “attack.”

“The fact that the authorities are not facilitating the appearance of all defendants in court only makes this case even more blatantly politically-motivated and a violation of their due process,” Piromya said.

“Exiled CNRP members who have been charged must be allowed to return safely and be given the opportunity to hear and defend their case in court.”

CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government, and two months later the Supreme Court banned the CNRP for its supposed role in the scheme.

The move to dissolve the CNRP marked the beginning of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.

Pandemic pretext

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), said that Hun Sen is using the coronavirus pandemic as “a golden opportunity” to target the opposition while the international community’s attention is diverted.

“The government’s goal is apparently to use the country’s CPP-controlled, kangaroo courts to present the world with a fait accompli—the effective end of Cambodian democracy and consolidation of Hun Sen’s perpetual dictatorship—by the time the world emerges from the shadow of COVID-19,” he said, referring to the disease caused by the coronavirus.

“Any pretense of a free and fair trial really went out the window the minute these mass proceedings were announced.”

Robertson also slammed the Cambodian government for using travel restrictions because of the pandemic to prevent CNRP leaders from returning to the country, which he said effectively denied them their right to defend themselves in court.

“Foreign governments, U.N. agencies and donors need to finally speak up publicly and hold Hun Sen accountable for his crackdown on political opponents, the media and civil society before further irreversible damage is done,” he said.

Hun Sen was also condemned by U.S. lawmakers Senator Edward J. Markey, lead Democrat on the East Asia Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Congresswoman Lori Trahan, who said his crackdown “reveals disdain for the rule of law.”

“Convening a kangaroo court to punish his critics for their opposition, along with his continued attacks on the press and civil-society, is a reflection of Hun Sen’s growing weakness, not strength,” the lawmakers from Massachusetts, home to a sizeable Cambodian émigré population, said in a joint statement.

Kem Sokha (C, blue scarf) meets with locals in Siem Reap province, July 19, 2020.
Kem Sokha (C, blue scarf) meets with locals in Siem Reap province, July 19, 2020.
Kem Sokha’s Facebook page

Request for royal intervention

Meanwhile, Mu Sochua told RFA’s Khmer Service Wednesday that she and other opposition leaders had yet to receive a response from Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni for royal intervention after the government said it would not recognize their Cambodian passports or grant them visas.

Last week, government spokesperson Phay Siphan told RFA that Mu Sochua and other CNRP members are not welcome in Cambodia, despite their upcoming trials and will “have to find a way to enter Cambodia on their own” because they had “organized a coup d’état.”

Phay Siphan’s comments appeared to suggest the CNRP exiles are already presumed guilty of the charges against them and that the government does not intend to provide them the right to defend themselves in court.

In a Jan. 5 letter to the king, Mu Sochua, who holds dual U.S. citizenship and an American passport, said that if she and other CNRP members are refused the right to attend their hearing it would constitute a serious violation of Cambodia’s constitution, which guarantees defendants a fair trial.

She has vowed to return home, regardless of the lack of a visa, after purchasing a flight via Singapore Airlines with a Jan. 17 arrival in Phnom Penh. When contacted by RFA on Wednesday, a representative of the airline said that “passengers must travel with a valid passport and all relevant travel documents.”

Mu Sochua also submitted a letter to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Jan. 2, calling for court authorities to intervene in the matter, but has yet to receive a response.

Phay Siphan told RFA Wednesday that Mu Sochua should not involve the king in politics and that she should instead request “political rehabilitation” before she and other CNRP members can return to Cambodia.

“They asked [the government] to remove their names from the list of charged persons,” he said.

“[Ex-CNRP lawmakers] are no longer regular people after they were handed the Supreme Court’s verdict.”

Mu Sochua said that she would not ask for forgiveness or recognize the Supreme Court ban on the CNRP.

“What are the crimes we committed? This is not a light crime—they charged us with treason. But we are innocent,” she said.

Political analyst Em Sovannara said the CNRP shouldn’t expect any response from the king for intervention because the government made the decision.

“It is up to the government if they are willing to validate passports or grant visas,” he said.

Party unity

CNRP leaders echoed calls Wednesday for a political resolution in Cambodia ahead of the country’s 2022 commune elections and general election the following year, saying it is the only way to ensure a free and fair vote.

CNRP deputy president Eng Chhai Eang told RFA that Hun Sen must drop charges against Kem Sokha and other party officials, and reinstate the party.

Kem Sokha’s trial began on Jan. 15, 2020 but was suspended in March on the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic and Hun Sen has hinted that it may not resume for years.

“We want to participate in the election, but how can we be involved? If we just form a new party to serve Hun Sen, it doesn’t make sense,” he said.

Eng Chhai Eang said that the political alliance between Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha remains strong and that Kem Sokha is still recognized as the party president, despite what observers have said are efforts by Hun Sen to split the CNRP.

Eng Chhai Eang’s remarks came a day after Kem Sokha’s daughter, Kem Monovithya, posted a message on Twitter saying her father intends to lead an opposition party to contest the 2022 and 2023 elections.

But in the tweet that was later deleted after causing an uproar in the CNRP, Kem Monovithya did not specify whether Kem Sokha would lead a new party.

RFA was unable to reach Kem Monovithya for comment Wednesday.

As Hun Sen’s crackdown on the CNRP enters its fourth year, HRW used its World Report 2021, to catalog abuses in the past year, including repeatedly using violence against peaceful protesters as well as arresting human rights defenders, journalists, opposition party members, and ordinary citizens for peacefully expressing their opinions.

“Amid the pandemic, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) used its 125-to-0 margin in the National Assembly to adopt new laws that further threaten civil and political rights,” the report said. HRW said that more than 60 political prisoners were jailed in Cambodia at the time of writing

The group also called out Hun Sen’s government for imposing “draconian” laws during the pandemic that further curtail the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association; attacking human rights defenders; arresting and harassing members of the opposition party; curtailing the freedom of the media; and failing to provide an adequate standard of living for its citizens in 2020.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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