The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday convicted 36 CNRP officials and activists of conspiracy, sentencing them to between five years and seven years in prison in relation to their unsuccessful efforts to help CNRP vice president Mu Sochua return to Cambodia in January 2021.
The convictions were handed down to senior leaders, including Sochua and opposition leader Sam Rainsy, both of whom are exiled. Of the 36, only four defendants remain in the country.
Kong Mas, Khan Bunpheng, and Voeung Samnang — all of whom have been in pretrial detention since December 2020 — were handed five-year sentences and immediately sent to prison. The fourth defendant still in Cambodia, Heng Sokleng, has been on bail for health issues and was given a suspended sentence. Charges were dropped against a 37th defendant, Matt Vanny. Chhun Sothy and Ngim Nheng also received suspended sentences.
Meanwhile, 11 senior leaders — Rainsy, Sochua, Eng Chhay Eang, Long Ry, Ho Vann, Ou Chanrith, Nuth Romduol, Men Sothavarin, Heng Danaro, Vann Narith, and Tioulong Saumura — all received seven year sentences in absentia, were barred from standing election for five years, and had their right to vote revoked.
For the three who will serve prison time, the outcome of the mass trial appeared particularly unjust.
“If convicting me makes you happy and makes the country prosper, let’s do it,” Mas shouted in the courtroom after the verdict was delivered.
The wives of three convicted broke down and began crying in the courtroom, leading security guards to ask them to leave.
Kol Sath, the wife of Mas, told reporters outside the court that the verdict was deeply unfair.
“It was a political dispute, and my husband was imprisoned for up to five years without doing anything wrong,” she said, crying. “I think that the court is not independent. Even if we appeal, the result will be the same, since the court only follows [the government’s order].”
Men Sokuntheavy, wife of Bunpheng, said that her husband has mental problems and he should be released.
“I came here today expecting the court to release my husband, but now the court has sentenced him to five years in prison, I don’t know what to do,” she said.
Mas has been detained since his December 2020 arrest in Phnom Penh. At the time, he had only been free for a few months, following his release from prison in August 2020 after serving 18 months for an incitement conviction related to a Facebook post in which he criticized the government.
Am Sam Ath, operations director of rights group Licadho, said the issue is a political one and should be addressed as such.
“As we already know that this is politically motivated rather than about legal implementation,” he said. “This issue could be raised during talks to end the political crisis to make the election environment next year better.”
He said the sentences would put pressure on families already struggling to get by. “This will surely affect their families’ living while the husbands who earn money are in jail, especially if they have children that are studying,” he said.
Lor Chunthy, one of the lawyers representing the defendants as a whole, told CamboJA that the lawyers are preparing to appeal.
“We ask the court to drop the charge since their cases are not linked to the plotting as charged,” he said.