On March 1, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Sam Rainsy, the acting president of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in absentia to 25 years in prison for an alleged 2019 plot to overthrow the government.
Eight other CNRP leaders were sentenced in absentia from 20 to 22 years for attempting to “attack” the government. All are banned from voting or participating in future elections.
On March 2, the CNRP said in a statement that it “resolutely rejects the ‘verdict’” handed down by the court. But Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin defended the court decision, saying prosecution of the opposition leaders was lawful.
“[T]the authorities have acted in accordance with legal procedures, and the courts conducted the trial based on procedure and made decisions based on the facts and existing legal aspects,” the Khmer Times quoted him as saying.
That is false. Outside observers said the trial failed to meet basic standards of due process.
The court delivered its verdict in a hearing that was neither attended by the defendants nor defense lawyers. New-York based Human Rights Watch said local nongovernmental organizations were provided “inaccurate information” about the verdict hearing date, so “no trial monitors were in the courtroom on March 1.”
Rainsy and others were not allowed to return to Cambodia to take part in their own defense. Court spokesperson Y Rin tried to justify the exclusion of the defendants from the verdict hearing by saying government lawyers had been present at the hearing.
The European Union rejected that argument.
“The accused were not allowed to return to the country to defend their cases in court, in what appears to be a violation of due process rights, firmly established by international human rights law,” the European External Action Service said.
U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy tweeted he was “troubled” by the sentencing, “particularly given a lack of due process.”
Responding to Murphy, HRW Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson expressed “outrage” at the verdict. “It's a politically motivated case based on bogus charges, heard by kangaroo court that issued ridiculously long sentences, & didn't even tell people when verdicts would be issued,” he wrote.
Rainsy’s latest conviction stems from his attempt to return to Cambodia on November 9, 2019, where he already faced years behind bars for previous convictions.
Prime Minister Hun Sen had threatened to deploy the army “and use weapons of all kinds” to attack CNRP supporters “wherever they are seen” if Rainsy returned.
Rainsy said that a popular uprising was “the only option left for Cambodia to bring about democratic change,” citing Hun Sen’s increasingly authoritarian 36-year reign. Following the July 2018 general election, Cambodia became a one-party state. The European Union, Japan, the United States and others called the election “illegitimate."
On Thursday, March 4, Hun Sen said he would rule indefinitely.
In 2019, Rainsy said he would reevaluate his decision to return to Cambodia and calls for a popular uprising if Hun Sen released imprisoned CNRP leader Kem Sokha, reinstated the CNRP and held free and fair elections, Reuters reported.
For more than a decade, Rainsy has been subjected to a slew of criminal prosecutions supporters say are linked to his political activity. He left Cambodia in 2015 after being hit with defamation charges. He has been charged and convicted in absentia numerous times, including a defamation and incitement conviction over claims that the state murdered political analyst Kem Ley in 2016.
Rainsy stepped down as CNRP leader in February 2017 in a failed bid to save the party. His successor, Sokha, was arrested in September 2017 for an alleged foreign-backed plot to overthrow Hun Sen’s government. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted in another case that has been widely condemned.
In November 2017, following Sokha’s arrest, Cambodia’s top court dissolved the CNRP, a move Charles Santiago, chairman of the advocacy group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, called "the final nail in the coffin for Cambodian democracy.”
The court has been slow in moving on Sokha’s trial, which he says violates his rights. In February, the court said the trial, already delayed for a year, might not resume in 2021 due to coronavirus concerns. In January, the court said Sokha’s case was not a priority, even as mass trials of lower-profile opposition figures began that month.
Amnesty International estimates 150 people affiliated with the CNRP are facing jail on charges that include treason and incitement.
The CNRP has condemned the crackdown.
“Throughout the rushed mass trials conducted from November 2020 to February 2021, no reliable evidence was presented, the defendants were not allowed to be present, and the public was largely excluded from the proceedings. The farce that was staged by the Phnom Penh court violates the procedural and substantive requirements of a fair trial reflected in the Cambodian Code and Article 14(3)(d) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights,” the CNRP wrote in the March 2 statement.
CNRP members are regularly assaulted, and family members face intimidation and harassment.