Twenty-one opposition members, including former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leaders Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua, were sentenced to prison Thursday after a trial rights groups slammed as politically motivated.
Former CNRP president Sam Rainsy, his deputies Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang, and four other party members received 10-year sentences in absentia after being found guilty of trying to overthrow the government of long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“The justice system has again been used as a blunt political tool,” tweeted Rainsy, who is in exile, after the verdict.
Mu Sochua told CamboJA in an email from abroad that the trial had been held by “a kangaroo court.“
The rest of the defendants, who are in jail in Cambodia, were sentenced to five years. With the remainder of their sentences suspended they will serve three years and eight months.
The charges against the 21 included plotting, incitement, and inciting the military to disobey orders and stemmed from Sam Rainsy’s attempted 2019 return to Cambodia and the formation of the Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM) in the aftermath of the CNRP’s 2017 banning.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, slammed the “baseless” charges, calling the trial “a witch hunt that discredits both the Cambodian government and the country’s courts,”
“Foreign governments, the United Nations, and donors should call out this attack on the political opposition and Cambodia’s remaining vestiges of democracy.” he said.
Defence lawyer Sam Sokong said that presiding judge Ros Piseth had ordered arrest warrants against those opposition leaders abroad and said the fact all the defendants were from the same opposition party was proof the case was politically motivated.
“We are disappointed they have not been provided with justice” Mr. Sokong said, adding that all his clients would appeal.
Seng Chanthan, the wife of Sun Thun, a district councilor from Kampong Thom province who was sentenced to five years in prison, told CamboJA that her husband was innocent.
“I can’t accept this because he didn’t commit a conspiracy or treason,” she said. “I think that the court is a puppet of politicians.”
CNRP officials and affiliates have been under fire since the party was dissolved by the Supreme Court in 2017 after having made significant gains in national and commune elections.
Rainsy fled Cambodia in 2015 amid mounting charges against him; Sochua and others fled following a nighttime raid on the home of co-founder Kem Sokha, who is currently on trial for treason.
Last year, in a separate but related case, nine CNRP members, including Rainsy and Sochua, were sentenced to between 20 to 25 years in prison for allegedly attempting a “coup d’etat.”
Cambodia will hold commune election in June this year and national election in 2023.