The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday questioned two among more than 130 defendants charged with plotting and incitement crimes related to the failed return of exiled opposition figure Sam Rainsy in 2019, which has been labeled an attempt to topple the government.
The three-hour session largely focused on social media communications between Kak Komphea and Heng Chan Sothy, two former officials of the outlawed Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), and leaders of the party, with the pair denying accusations that they were organizers of the failed return.
Written off as “politically motivated” and “bogus” by observers, the charges are the latest setback for what is left of the CNRP, which, after making massive gains in local and national elections, was dissolved by the Supreme Court in 2017, had its cofounder Kem Sokha jailed, and 118 of its top members banned from politics.
Under examination, Komphea, 55, a former member of the Phnom Penh council for the CNRP, said, while that while he would have gone to welcome returning party leaders, he had not been in contact with them and had nothing to do with their well-publicized plans.
“I did nothing like collecting people to topple the government … They charged me with plotting but I did nothing to betray the nation. The charge is incorrect,” he said.
The second defendant to be examined, Chan Sothy, 59, a former district councilor in Phnom Penh’s Por Senchey district, told the court that he too would have been present to welcome party leaders home in November 2019.
Under questioning, Chan Sothy first told the court that he had not been in contact with deputy leader Eng Chhai Eang, but reversed course when the court clerk read the defendants testimony to an investigative judge saying he had received a message from the exiled deputy and shared it into a group chat and on his Facebook page.
“I received a message from Eng Chhai Eng and I responded to him via Messenger and there were two people who liked and supported the plan,” he said.
The trial of more than 130 the opposition members and supporters, which was postponed last month and split into two separate trials, has been slammed by human rights groups in Cambodia and around the world.
Deputy CNRP leader Mu Sochua has been on a public campaign to be allowed back to Cambodia to defend herself, with her Cambodian passport having been revoked and foreign missions in the US, where she lives, refusing to issue her a travel visa, she said.
Defendants have claimed a variety of irregularities in proceedings, from misspelled names to not receiving summons to appear in court, while opposition leaders living in exile claim they have been blocked from returning to face trial.
Outside the court, defense lawyer Sam Sokong and Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, expressed concern about the possibility of the trial being fair, with the questioning heavily slanted against the defendants.
“I wonder, when they are just expressing opinions through social media, Facebook, or had a messenger group, how that can be considered treason,” Sopheap said.
“Is it an offense when we use these things? The questioning really made me wonder.”
Yamini Mishra, Asia-Pacific director for advocacy group Amnesty International, said that trial was “the culmination of a relentless campaign of persecution against Cambodia’s political opposition.”
“Recent history in Cambodia suggests that those accused have faint hopes of a fair trial,” she said in a statement.
With Covid-19, Prime Minister Hun Sen had seized on a “golden opportunity to ramp up harassment against the opposition,” according to Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Asia, Phil Robertson.
“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,” he said.
A heavy police presence guarded the hearings on Thursday, with some media, activists and would-be protestors blocked by fences from getting near the court.
Amid the confusion, Ney Leak, a former deputy commune chief in Battambang province and one of the defendants, was more than an hour late, with U.N. officials having to intervene to get her to the court, she said.
“Police prevented me from entering the court, even though I told them that I am one of the defendants and had to answer question,” she said. “I am afraid the judges will accuse me of not following my summons.”
Judge Im Vannak said the trial will resume on January 28.