The trial of 39 former CNRP leaders and members accused of plotting against the state began Thursday at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in a case linked to their support for the unsuccessful attempt by an ex-CNRP vice president to return to Cambodia early last year.
The hearing, which follows several cases against dozens of members of the outlawed opposition party, saw jailed party activist Kong Mas cast doubt on prosecutors’ evidence and call for audio of private phone conversations, allegedly showing a plot, to be played in court.
Only three defendants—Mas, Khan Bunpheng and Roeung Samnang, each of whom are in pretrial detention—were present in the courtroom on Thursday morning. Other defendants in the case include former senior CNRP leaders, including former vice presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhai Eang, ex-party leader Sam Rainsy and his wife and former lawmaker Tioulong Saumura, as well as other activists and supporters of the dissolved opposition. Many senior party leaders and activists have lived abroad for years, avoiding prison sentences from various convictions in other cases.
On Thursday, deputy prosecutor Seng Hieng read aloud four transcripts of private phone conversations provided by anti-terrorism police between Mas and other CNRP activists speaking about gathering grassroots supporters to rally behind Sochua’s planned return to the country on January 4, 2021.
“Gather people to support [outside] the trial [of CNRP leaders] on 29, 30 December, and leaders will be in charge of accommodation fees,” Mas said on the phone, according to the transcript read by Hieng.
Mas denied plotting against the government and said he did not recognize the phone conversations. He also called on prosecutors to play the audio conversations in court.
“Please show your evidence,” he said.
“I think that is my right to access information and what you [officials] had created to frame me, I do not recognize,” Mas said, alleging the transcripts read in court were manufactured by authorities.
“What you did to accuse me is very serious, I don’t have the ability to topple the government,” he added.
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.
On Thursday, Mas, who wore an orange prison jumpsuit in court, said he had attended the hearing in order to monitor the trial and see if deputy president Sochua would attend as she had promised.
Outside the courthouse, defense lawyer Sam Sokong said it was hard to find justice for his clients because the case involved politics.
“As seen in this morning’s trial, it is difficult to get justice because the judge has an assumption that my client had committed an offense,” he said. “Secondly, this case is linked to the politics of returning former CNRP leader Mu Sochua.”
Yi Soksan, a senior monitor at rights group Adhoc who observed the hearing, called on the court to drop all charges against political activists.
“The evidence to accuse him, it hasn’t seemed serious because the defendant himself said he has no capability to overthrow the government,” Soksan said.
“I think this case involves political issues because most people involved are members of the [former opposition] party,” he added.
Kol Sat, Mas’ wife, said her husband is innocent, had just recently been released from prison in 2020 when he was again arrested and was not involved in politics since the CNRP was dissolved in 2017.
“I am very upset because my husband did nothing wrong but he has been accused of plotting,” she said. “If the court is independent, they should not accuse him of betraying the nation.”
Presiding judge Uk Retkunthea said the trial would continue on September 22.