Phnom Penh, Cambodia – A Cambodian court on Thursday opened the first of two mass trials against members and supporters of the banned opposition party in the country for allegedly plotting an attack on the government in 2019.
Sixty people linked to the National Rescue Party of Cambodia (CNRP) were tried on Thursday and 77 others will face the same charges in a hearing on March 4.
They are all charged with “conspiracy” and “incitement” and face a maximum of 12 years in prison if found guilty.
The charges relate to former CNRP chairman Sam Rainsy’s unsuccessful attempt to return to the country in 2019. Rainsy, who has been in exile since 2015, has been barred from returning to Cambodia after the government issued a ban on travel against him and asked his ASEAN neighbors to prevent him from boarding a flight.
There was a strong security presence in the streets leading up to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday. The government deployed specialized police officers and armed members of the Bodyguard Unit – elite security forces tasked with protecting Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen – to create a cordon around the court.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights said several CNRP supporters and family members of the accused were prevented from observing the trial and a man was arrested by police.
A three-judge panel kicked off the hearing by presenting the findings of investigators in the case, alleging that there was a “structure” planned for Rainsy’s return and that people had been convinced to gather in large numbers. to attack the government and undermine national security.
Only two of the 11 defendants were questioned on Thursday, with the court adjourning proceedings until January 28.
Kak Komphear, a former CNRP party official in Phnom Penh, said he supported Rainsy’s return to Cambodia in 2019 and that there was no conspiracy or conspiracy against the government.
“I have no idea about it. I am speechless, ”he told the court.
Public prosecutors and the panel of judges questioned the two defendants about a Facebook Messenger group, which was allegedly used by the defendants and senior CNRP officials to plan the 2019 event.
The judges also appointed five lawyers to defend the defendants. The appointment proved contentious after one of the appointed attorneys used an accusatory tone in asking Komphear, the former CNRP party official, to “not lie in court.”
Another court-appointed lawyer asked Komphear for his take on “peace and prosperity” in Cambodia – which is similar to the slogan “peace and development” used by Prime Minister Hun Sen to describe his achievements. left.
The trial which began at the end of November, when the court held a chaotic hearing and was unable to determine the number of defendants present that day. The judges quickly decided to split the hearings in two.
Chhun Bunhea, one of the defendants, said he was disappointed that the court adjourned the proceedings. The former CNRP official lives in the eastern province of Tbong Khmum, more than three hours away from Phnom Penh.
“If the court maintains this kind of procedure, I may not be able to pay the travel expenses to get here from Tbong Khmum,” he told reporters outside the court.
Human rights groups say Thursday’s trial is part of an ongoing crackdown on political opposition and critics of Hun Sen. After the CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court in 2017, hundreds of its officials and activists fled Cambodia out of fear for their safety.
In addition to the CNRP, the Cambodian government has intimidated and obstructed rights groups and shut down critical media. Police forces arrested dozens of political, youth and environmental activists last year, many of whom will stand trial in the coming weeks.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party has almost complete control over all elected positions in the country after sweeping all 125 parliamentary seats in the controversial 2018 general election. The CNRP was dissolved months before the national elections, preventing any credible challenge to it. Hun Sen’s grip on power for 36 years.
Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, said the Cambodian government’s decision to lay “bogus” charges against the political opposition was aimed at quelling any remaining dissent in the country.
“Any claim to a free and fair trial really went out the window as soon as these proceedings were announced,” he said in an email.