Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Activist Seng Theary rejects charges in mass trial

Human rights activist and attorney Seng Theary arrives for a hearing at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, December 28, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
Human rights activist and attorney Seng Theary arrives for a hearing at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, December 28, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

In the latest hearing of the mass trial against 139 supporters of the political opposition, one of the accused stood alone Tuesday to testify to more than 20 years of work in Cambodia.

Attorney Seng Theary had attended her first hearing on December 7 at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court dressed as a Khmer apsara dancer, a move she attested was fitting to the “political theater” of the mass trial. On Tuesday, she returned to the court in more sober attire, donned in a suit with a long, striped tie.

During the two-hour hearing, judges interrogated the defendant’s biography and purpose from her 1995 return to Cambodia from living as a refugee in the US up through today. The wide-ranging series of questions was intended to bolster a case that Theary had plotted to overthrow the government by supporting the attempted return of the vocal but exiled opposition figure Sam Rainsy on November 9, 2019.

The attorney, who represented herself, told the court she supported Sam Rainsy’s return to Cambodia from exile as “symbolic of genuine democracy,” but denied all accusations of involvement in any criminal conspiracy. 

“I support the opposition party in line with my will regarding reconciliation and peace, but I am not a party member,” she said. “I support Sam Rainsy as a symbol of democratic, human rights, which is my legitimate right.”

Theary also dismissed a question from the judge accusing Sam Rainsy of encouraging rebellion.

“I do not recognize the government in the 2018 election due to the lack of the opposition CNRP,” she told the court. “What I understood about his character [Sam Rainsy] was that he pushed citizens to use their rights and non-violence.”

The trial was postponed when Theary requested a copy of documents supporting a new criminal charge against her stemming from her writing on Facebook: “I return to Cambodia to continue our work, to have an independent media and collect workers in demonstration.”

The trial will resume January 4.

Human rights activist and attorney Seng Theary arrives for a hearing at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, December 28, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

On December 7, the Phnom Penh court resumed the mass trial against former CNRP officials and political activists, including Theary, after a long delay attributed to COVID-19. The court is scheduled to hold a trial for the activists and opposition members every Tuesday and Thursday.

Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator at the rights group Adhoc who attended the trial, said that the civil society sees the case against Theary and others as “politically motivated” and targeted at supporters of the political opposition.

“We have not expected to provide justice to the victims because all have known that this case is politically motivated and should be resolved through political settlement,” he said.

However, he did say that the court has provided rights to the accused, including requesting a copy of documents for the defense for use in the next hearing.

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