(Update 1: adds details of hearing in pars 5-7, minor edits to pars 1, 2, 4)
By Taryn Wilson
Bangkok Desk, Jan 14 (efe-epa).- A Cambodian court on Thursday began a mass trial of more than 60 people linked to the country’s opposition party and critics of the government who face charges such as treason and incitement.
Sixty-one defendants were summoned to appear in court Thursday out of around 120 people, mostly affiliated with the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved by the country’s Supreme Court in 2017 in the run-up to the 2018 general election. The party was the only threat to the rule of strongman Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which went on to take all seats in parliament at the polls.
Since then, “hundreds of CNRP activists and supporters have been arbitrarily arrested, detained, and have faced politically motivated criminal charges,” Amnesty International said in a statement Thursday.
Defendants in orange prison jumpsuits were brought to Phnom Penh Municipal Court amid tight security Thursday morning. Some were unable to attend the hearing as many opposition activists fled into exile during the government’s crackdown.
Out of the 61 defendants summoned, only 11 were present in court, according to Cambodian Center for Human Rights executive director Sopheap Chak. Two of them were questioned, but the that of the second will continue at the next hearing on Jan. 28, she said, adding that questioning revolved around the used of social media, such as messaging, likes and shares.
United States Ambassador to Cambodia Patrick Murphy said embassy observers were present at the court.
“We have serious concerns about lack of due process and urge Cambodian authorities to preserve the constitutional right to peaceful expression,” he wrote on Twitter.
Wives of those in court stood outside, barred from entering, according to Twitter posts by former CNRP vice-president in exile, Mu Sochua.
Mu Sochua is one of the defendants who intended to return to Cambodia to face trial, but she was unable to get into the country to attend Thursday’s hearing. Her Cambodian passport was revoked by the government in 2019 and on Thursday in a virtual press conference, she said authorities have still not issued a visa into her United States passport.
“A quarter of the defendants that are being trialled right now are outside of Cambodia. They cannot go back in either,” Mu Sochua said, calling the trial a “weaponization of the justice system” in the country.
She also raised the case of CNRP leader Kem Sokha, also charged with treason, but whose trial has been suspended indefinitely.
Another defendant is Cambodian-American human rights lawyer Theng Seary who, according to her counsel, has been a critic of Hun Sen but was not affiliated with the CNRP. In documents posted to her Facebook account Thursday, she said she would represent herself at what she described as a “sham trial.”
Human rights watchdogs also widely condemned the string of trials scheduled to continue throughout the month.
“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 ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights board member Kasit Piromya in a statement Thursday.
“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,” he added.
The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Cambodia, Rhona Smith, said Wednesday night that “having 60 accused in mass trial puts their individual rights to a fair trial at risk. Moreover, I am also concerned about several accused being tried in absentia despite their efforts to return to Cambodia to stand the trial.”
Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific Regional Director Yamini Mishra said in the statement Thursday that the “onslaught of cases is the culmination of a relentless campaign of persecution against Cambodia’s political opposition and other dissenting voices.”
Human Rights Watch added that “the government’s goal is apparently to use the 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.” EFE-EPA