The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday began the trial of more than 130 former Cambodia National Rescue Party members and supporters on incitement and plotting charges, a case linked to their support of the unsuccessful return attempt by Sam Rainsy in 2019.
The trial is one of the biggest in terms of the number of defendants and saw only 34 of the 139 accused persons attend the hearing, said Kuch Kimlong, a court spokesperson. A number of defendants, including senior CNRP leaders and party supporters, are either living overseas or in exile.
At the request of deputy prosecutor Seng Hieng, presiding judge Ros Piseth delayed the trial proceedings on Thursday, after deciding to combine four case files into two case files, with new hearings scheduled for January 14 and March 4, 2021.
Rights groups said delays in the trial would affect the defendants’ fair trial rights, with many of the accused surprised at the charges levelled against them.
Y Rin, another court spokesperson, denied the delay in proceedings would affect the trial, suggesting that defense lawyers had already asked for a delay in proceedings.
“Seems like it is not an issue because defense lawyers had already requested a delay because some of the defense lawyers had not studied the case documents as yet,” he said.
Ny Sokha, head of human rights and land rights section at ADHOC, expressed concern over the court’s ability to protect the defendants’ fair trial rights, adding that many of the accused had not even been informed about the charges against them.
He said the prolonged trial would affect all the defendants, especially those already in prison.
“So, when they combine the cases, I think it will be difficult to find justice in those cases,” Sokha said.
Lor Chunthy, one of the defense lawyers who is representing around 12 of the 139 defendants, confirmed that defense lawyers had requested the panel of judges for a delay because they had to study the case files, especially now that the cases had been combined.
“Defendants who have attended the hearing also did not agree to accept lawyers that the Bar Association provided for them,” Chunthy said, adding that the presiding judge allowed defendants to find their own legal representation and report back to the court two weeks prior to the trial hearing.
A number of defendants were astonished at the charges against them and could not comprehend what actions they had done to warrant the harsh charges.
Special rapporteur to Cambodia, Rhona Smith, released a statement on Wednesday expressing alarm at the large number of defendants in the trial and questioned the legal grounds for the case and charges.
“The mass trials of CNRP activists appear to be politically motivated, lacking clear legal grounds and constitute a serious violation of the due process rights, firmly established by international human rights law,” said Smith, adding that such judicial proceedings appeared to be part of a strategy to intimidate and discredit opponents of the government.
In response, the Cambodian permanent mission to the U.N. rejected her concerns and dismissed them as her “personal view.”
“The personal view of the so-called expert, who is not the UN staff member, is fraught with selectivity and distortion with disregard of the facts,” read the statement from Cambodia’s U.N. mission.
Saro Sovudhi, who was a CNRP commune chief from Nimit in Poipet city, maintained his innocence and wanted to prove to the court that he had never conspired or incited anyone.
“I believe the court will drop the charges against me because I have evidence to show that I have never plotted [against the government],” he said.
The 38-year-old Banteay Meanchey resident said it would be hard from him to have to travel to Phnom Penh for the hearings and that the charges had caused increased stress among his family members.
Former Sam Rainsy Party Senator Thach Setha also denied any involvement in the alleged crimes and told reporters he did not know what he had exactly done that was illegal.
“So, I came to attend the hearing because I want to know who I conspired with and who did I betray,” Setha said.
Seng Theary, a Cambodian-American lawyer and rights advocate, said she did not want a court-appointed lawyer and that she wanted access to the case file, especially the investigating judge’s final report.
“I and other people do not receive the reports on something that we have committed against with the law and we received only one summon, so it is not enough,” Theary said.
Despite her opposition to the trial, Theary said she would return to attend her hearing on January 14.
As the trial proceeded in the courtroom, around 100 supporters from across the country congregated outside the court but were prevented from standing close to the premises.
Sou Yen, a 51-year-old farmer from Tbong Khmum province’s Memot district, was displeased that security officials did not allow him and others to express themselves outside the court building.
“I am scared but I have to come here to demand freedom for those people who are innocent,” he said. “But we are now seeing that they have restricted our rights.”