Cambodian courts are currently processing cases against nearly 70 former CNRP members for plotting, and have already convicted 12 this year for their alleged links to the attempted return of acting party leader Sam Rainsy in November 2019.
Civil society groups and political analysts claim the trials are part of a political agenda rather than a legitimate attempt to enforce the law.
As the persecution of dissident groups and former opposition members has escalated this year, some ex-CNRP officials have gone into hiding and others have fled Cambodia due to fears of arrest and imprisonment. Dozens more are awaiting trial, some behind bars, and others have already received hefty sentences.
A defense lawyer for the former CNRP members said that about 80 party members have been processed at courts in eight provinces and Phnom Penh this year on charges of plotting to commit an attack under Article 453 of the Criminal Code, which carries a prison term of five to 10 years. Twenty-eight more have been scheduled for a hearing, 24 of whom are in pre-trial detention. Twelve have already been convicted and sentenced.
The Tbong Khmum Provincial Court on September 22 sentenced in absentia seven local opposition officials with five of them handed seven years in a prison each, and two more were given suspended five-year sentences. The provincial courts in Kampot, Kandal and Kompong Cham also convicted former opposition members of the same crime.
Last week, the Koh Kong Provincial Court initiated the trial of an ex-CNRP official who has fled the country and the Kampong Speu court on September 28 held the trials of seven ex-CNRP members. The verdicts would be announced on October 22 and 28, according to Sam Sokong, the lawyer for the accused said.
The Banteay Meanchey Provincial Court postponed a hearing on September 29 of seven more ex-CNRP officials as their attorney was not present, and the Ratanakkiri Provincial Court also postponed one hearing.
Cases against 40 more opposition party members are being processed by an investigating judge in Kampong Cham province.
Sokong said they had all been charged with “plotting” for their perceived links to Rainsy, who lives in self-imposed exile in France.
Until the opposition party was dissolved by Supreme Court order in 2017, the accused formerly held a variety of roles within the CNRP, as provincial and district councilors, commune chiefs, and working group-level executives, he said.
Sokong called on the court to drop the charges against his clients, saying there is no inculpatory evidence to convict any of them.
“If we look at the facts, there is no evidence against my clients,” he said. “But if the cases are politically motivated, we have no hope that the courts will drop the charges.”
In November last year, Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy and other senior leaders of the CNRP had planned to walk across the border from Thailand alongside thousands of supporters, as part of a “people power” movement to establish democratic competition.
The ruling party labeled the planned return a coup attempt and arrested dozens of supporters in the lead up most of whom were charged with plotting. In November, Rainsy landed in Malaysia, but returned to France after the Thai Prime Minister said he would not be allowed in the country and shortly after the Cambodian government said he could return if he was prepared to face justice.
The CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017 after party President Kem Sokha was arrested for allegedly colluding with foreign powers in an attempt to overthrow the government. The recently arrested local councilors and working group members were ousted from their positions at that time and replaced with the CPP members who they had run against in the 2017 commune elections.
Cheat Khemra, 47, a former member of the CNRP working group in Banteay Meanchey province whose scheduled September 29 trial was postponed, rejected the charge against him with ‘plotting’ and said he was concerned over how the court would handle the case.
“Yes, we are worried [about arrests] because no one is happy to be imprisoned,” he said.
“Our political activities were in line with the Cambodian Constitution but they have accused us of plotting and we do not know in what way we have betrayed the nation,” Socheat said, adding that he had stopped working in politics since the party was dissolved in 2017.
Another defendant, Chok Hour, who was sentenced to seven years in prison by the Tbong Khmum Provincial Court and is now in hiding, said that if he is convicted, it will be further proof that the ruling party is persecuting former opposition party members.
“I think that it is an injustice and [that the court’s] decisions are politically motivated,” he said.
“I am in hiding due to fears I will be arrested and imprisoned because as we know, the court is under the influence of politicians,” Hour said.
Hour was the former chief of the CNRP’s executive working group in Ponhea Krek district.
“I think that it is putting pressure on the actions of former party members,” he said. “It is entirely violating the rights of a citizen to freely exercise their opinions.”
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin defended the courts’ actions, saying they were following the correct procedures.
“It does not matter if you are with an [opposition party]. If you have violated the law, you must follow the procedure of the court as a key part of any social democracy,” he said.
“Their political activity is not against the law but it is also important not to commit a criminal offense, and they have to face the law,” Malin said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak encouraged the accused individuals to find a lawyer to defend them rather than calling for the international community to intervene.
“All those people have really broken the law and we have evidence and witnesses,” he said.
“We cannot stop them from exercising their opinion,” Sopheak continued. “When they [the courts] do not hold a trial, they accuse the courts of holding up cases, and if the courts take a case to trial, they say it is an injustice.”
He said that Prime Minister Hun Sen mentioned that the European Union’s decision to cut duty-free trade under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) system was akin to killing the opposition party in Cambodia.
However, former senior CNRP official Meach Sovannara said the ruling CPP was using a “political trick” by putting pressure on the opposition party as a way to force negotiations with the international community, noting that Cambodia cannot function economically without the cooperation of other nations.
“It is an injustice that they are arresting and imprisoning them for exercising their opinions, which they are guaranteed in the Constitution,” he said, adding that Cambodia stands to further damage its reputation on the international stage due to its treatment of dissenting groups.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of rights group Licadho, said the convictions of former opposition party members are undermining democracy and contributing to the deteriorating state of human rights in Cambodia, which the international community has demanded that Cambodia address.
“The cases [against CNRP members] appear to be politically motivated rather than related to effective law enforcement,” he said, adding that the international watchdog groups would be paying careful attention to the cases.
He said the escalation of human rights abuses is related both to Rainsy’s 2019 announcement that he would return to Cambodia and the finalization of the cuts to the EBA, after which dozens of activists have been arrested.
Political analyst Meas Nee said the government is receiving more criticism from international groups over the deterioration of democracy and human rights after the arrests of ex-CNRP members picked up earlier this year.
“Political prisoners are arrested when a political crisis is about to happen,” he said. “The ruling CPP does not seem confident that it will [win the election] if they allow the opposition party to be reinstated.”
Meanwhile, Pa Chamroeun, president of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, said Cambodia will be hit with more sanctions if the government does not improve its human rights record and make moves to become more democratic, citing the partial suspension of the EBA on August 12.
“Some measures related to the arrests and convictions we have seen to be fueled by politics rather than a genuine intention to enforce the law,” he said, adding that international groups had also called on Cambodia to improve the independence of the courts.
“Domestically, if politicians are still threatening each other with intimidation, persecution and eventual imprisonment, I think it will prolong a seriously painful injustice in our society,” Chamroeun said.
On September 25, Rainsy again announced to return from five years in exile, saying it was a necessary move to press for democratic reforms as the country faces what he called an “economic crisis,” RFA reported.
“I will return to Cambodia to solve the economic crisis,” he told an RFA Khmer Service talk show. “[Prime Minister] Hun Sen doesn’t know how to solve this crisis. He and his government don’t know how to do it.”