On Tuesday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court found dozens of former members of the outlawed opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) party—including a Cambodian American lawyer, Seng Theary—guilty of plotting and incitement to overthrow the government.
Theary was arrested in front of the court after her six-year prison sentence was pronounced. She was convicted of plotting against the government in 2019, in her support of returning the exiled opposition figure Sam Rainsy to the country. In total, 139 members and supporters of the CNRP were prosecuted in two mass trials.
The presiding judge Ros Piseth also handed an eight-year prison sentence to 12 former senior CNRP officials, including Sam Rainsy, Mu Sochua, Eng Chhai Eang, Tok Vanchan, Ou Chanrith, Ho Vann, Long Ry, Um Sam An – some of whom were trialed in absentia. Around 20 of the defunct CNRP’s members and activists were sentenced to six years in jail, while another 20 had their jail terms suspended to five years.
On the day the verdict was announced, before her arrest, Theary dressed up as “Lady Liberty”. She had smeared her skin with a green substance, and wore a grey shirt and a crown with the word “freedom” scrawled on it, and held a symbolic torch.
“I am ‘Lady Liberty’, not just Miss Theary Seng. If we are found guilty, all Cambodians who love justice and freedom, and who are genuine democrats, will also be found guilty along with us,” she had said.
She said that she was ready for a sham guilty verdict. “I will stay outside. If they are going to arrest me, I want them to do it not in the shadows, but do it publicly.”
At about 10:00 am, the police dragged Theary into custody at Prey Sar prison. At the same time, other protesters were scuffling with district security guards over protesting with banners, while 10 police intervention units were deployed to tighten security inside the courtroom.
Only four defendants – Kak Komphea, Heng Chansothy, Tum Bunthorn, and Yok Neang – were present in person in court to listen to Tuesday’s verdict.
“Injustice, it is a kangaroo court!” Bunthorn chanted before walking out of the courtroom after he was sentenced to six years in jail, while Komphea yelled “Bravo!” at the Candlelight Party.
Choung Choungy, Seng Theary’s lawyer, told reporters outside the court that he would discuss with his client whether to file an appeal to the court’s judgement.
Civil society groups condemned the conviction of opposition members and activists as “politically motivated” and the U.S. embassy called on the authorities to release Theary and other human rights activists from imprisonment.
“We are deeply troubled by today’s unjust verdicts against Seng Theary and others. Freedom of expression and association, and tolerance of dissenting views, are vital components of democracy,” read a post on Facebook by the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh on Tuesday.
Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said that the conviction of the defunct CNRP’s members are part of the government’s wider crackdown on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s political opponents.
“The show trial of members of an opposition party that has long been dissolved by the courts exposes the Hun Sen government’s fear of any vestige of democracy in Cambodia,” said Robertson.
Komphea’s wife, Prum Chantha, as known Friday’s Woman, said that it was a serious injustice for her husband to be sentenced to six years in jail.
“For me, it is very unfair,” she said. “Why is our country hurting its people so much?”
Sam Sokong, a lawyer for senior leaders and activists of the CNRP, expressed disappointment with the court’s decision.
“I am upset because it is a serious punishment without solid evidence that they had committed offenses,” he said. He said that some of his clients had fled Cambodia and had not even known about the crime they were charged with, nor were they summoned to court to answer the charges.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, also said that the convictions appeared to be politically motivated. “This never-ending witch hunt against critical voices that the authorities have been leading must cease.”
She said that nobody should be jailed for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association, no matter how different their political opinions and ideas from those of the country’s leaders.
“Every citizen, including opposition members, has the right to express their views and concerns on any topic without fear of repercussions and to freely associate,” Sopheap added.
Am Sam Ath, operation director of the rights group Licadho, said that both the national and international community viewed this morning’s court convictions as politics, especially with regard to Sam Rainsy’s return to the country.
“It is linked to politics rather than law enforcement,” he said, adding that the court’s decision wasn’t surprising. “But it is considered to be a historical event that will be emotionally traumatic and could be a threat to other opposition parties,” he said.
He also said that civil society groups would like to see politicians return to a culture of dialogue and negotiation, as well as to democracy and human rights, in Cambodia. (Additional reporting by Soeung Nimol)