A district-level official from the outlawed Cambodian National Rescue Party denied involvement in a plot to topple the government on Tuesday, as the latest in a slew of court cases against opposition figures and activists got underway.
Hundreds of security personnel were deployed outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for the trial of eight former lawmakers and 13 officials and supporters accused of plotting to overthrow the government in relation to the exiled lawmakers’ pledge to return to Cambodia in 2019.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, his wife Saumura Tioulong, former CNRP vice presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang, and former lawmakers Nuth Rumduol, Ho Vann, Top Vanchan and Ou Chanrith were tried in absentia, while the remainder were brought to court from pre-trial detention.
The defendants are charged with inciting military personnel to rebel against the government, inciting serious turmoil in society and threatening national security with the intention to dislodge the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, presiding judge Ros Piseth told the court.
Prosecutor Sieng Sok questioned defendants on the establishment of the Cambodian National Rescue Movement – formed by former CNRP members after the party was dissolved by the Supreme Court in 2017 – its structure and involvement in the stated return of former lawmakers in November, which did not eventuate.
“There was no secret network,” defendant Long Phary, a former party official in Prey Veng province’s Kampong Trabek district, told the court.
“[I] have never received an order,” related to the charges, he said, adding that he had not participated an any of the party’s activities since it was dissolved.
Phary, who was arrested in March, said that former colleague Pen Oun had asked him to help gather supporters ahead of the slated return, but that he took no action, telling Oun that “I don’t know how to find them because we have lost connection with each other,” he said.
A second defendant, Ngin Kheang, who was also arrested in March after allegedly spreading fake news about the coronavirus, told the court that he had no information about any plot to overthrow the government or support the return of the exiled opposition figures.
“I have never had any relationship with Sam Rainsy; I haven’t even liked his Facebook page,” he said.
Defense lawyer Sam Sokong said that the line of questioning from the prosecution was one-sided.
“As a principle of law, the penal judges have to ask questions for exculpatory and inculpatory in order to find the truth for victims,” he said.
Ny Sokha, who monitored the trial as head of human rights for Adhoc, called for the alleged ringleaders to be allowed to return to Cambodia to face the court when the trial resumes on January 22, rather than questioning people with little or no role.
Security forces prevented family members of the 13 detained defendants and supporters of the exiled lawmakers and their outlawed party from gathering outside the court, similarly to the mass trial in November of 130 former CNRP members and supporters over their alleged involvement in the 2019 plot.
A similar show of force is expected again on Wednesday, when 15 people – including environmental and opposition activists, a monk and an Australian politician – go on trial for various incitement-related charges.
The timing of Wednesday’s trial is no coincidence, with many international human rights monitors on leave and unable to be present in court, Human Rights Watch said, capping off a bad year for activists in Cambodia.
“While the world was battling with a raging pandemic, Hun Sen took advantage of the distraction to step up his crackdown on dissent, HRW’s deputy Asia director, Phil Robertson said in a statement.
“It is imperative that foreign governments, UN agencies and donors publicly demand the Cambodian government end these show trials, and release the over 60 political prisoners already behind bars.”