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Dozens in court as Cambodia puts opposition on trial for treason

  • November 26, 2020

The treason trial of more than 100 members and backers of Cambodia’s political opposition has started in Phnom Penh, in a case condemned by activists as an attempt by long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen to crush his rivals.

A total of 121 defendants, all tied to the forcibly dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), were summoned to appear on Thursday but many have fled into exile, convinced they would not get a fair hearing.

Among those who were seen arriving in court were former opposition senator Thach Setha and Cambodian-American human rights activist and lawyer, Theary Seng.

Mu Sochua, the exiled former deputy leader of CNRP told the Reuters news agency that the trial “will be a showcase with a verdict already decided, not by the judges but by the regime,” adding that only 50 defendants would appear.


“More than 120 cases on the same date, the same time, by the same judges cannot be a fair trial,” said Sochua, whose trial is at a later date.

In a social media post, Sochua also noted that while she and other exiled leaders have been summoned to court, they are barred from entering the country.

“We cannot return to Cambodia without valid Cambodian travel documents. We want to defend ourselves in court. We demand a fair trial,” she wrote on Wednesday.

‘Kangaroo court’

Security was tight ahead of the trial, with most media unable to enter what police said was a packed courtroom.

According to reports, only pre-registered individuals were allowed access.

The CNRP was banned and its leader Kem Sokha arrested ahead of an election in 2018, ensuring Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party won every parliamentary seat.

Kem Sokha’s treason charges stem from accusations he conspired with the United States to overthrow Hun Sen – claims both he and Washington have rejected.

Other defendants believe they are being punished for advocating the return from exile of Sam Rainsy, Hun Sen’s biggest rival during his 35-year rule.

“This is not a legitimate legal proceeding but a show trial, a political theatre,” Seng, the human rights lawyer, said earlier adding that she had seen no indictment.

“It’s a Kangaroo Court employing laws of the jungle,” she told Reuters by email.

The government says the treason case is legitimate. Justice ministry spokesman, Chin Malin, said the trial would proceed like any other.

“The court will decide it according to matter of law and matter of fact,” he said.

The continued crackdown on the opposition has strained Cambodia’s ties with western countries and prompted the European Union, a key export destination, to withdraw special trade privileges.

Experts say that has only pushed Cambodia deeper into the orbit of China. The US Embassy in Phnom Penh last week said it was watching the trial closely and freedom of expression was “vital in a genuine democracy”.

“We urge authorities to protect these freedoms,” it said. “And to take meaningful steps to reopen civic and political space.”

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