The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday began a trial against nine former senior leaders of the Cambodia National Rescue Party on the charge of attempting to attack the government through an alleged coup d’etat in November 2019.
Former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, Eng Chhay Eang, Mu Sochua, Ou Chanrith, Ho Vann, Long Ry, Men Sothavrin, Tioulong Saumura and Nuth Romduol are being tried in absentia. A number of them are facing multiple other charges in three parallel trials at the same court.
The cases are linked to Sam Rainsy’s unsuccessful attempt to return to Cambodia in November 2019, a move the government has characterized as an attack on the government. The government placed travel bans on Rainsy and asked airlines to not allow him to board any flight to Cambodia.
In a three-hour hearing, the court heard testimony from the Department of Counter-Terrorism officials who was in charge of compiling evidence for the “attack” against the outlawed CNRP officials. This included Facebook messages from Rainsy’s Facebook page and a 2-hour video of a meeting attended by party officials in Massachusetts, United States, to plan their return to Cambodia.
“The posted messages were illegally inciting people and armed forces for a coup détat against the government,” Soem Vuthy told the court, who is deputy chief of the Counter-Terrorism Department.
Vuthy talked about multiple documents he presented as evidence, including Rainsy’s Facebook post which he said was an “appeal to incite armed forces to defect from dictatorship regime,” and “appealed to citizens to stand up and topple Hun Sen’s regime.”
“I would like to say that if we did not have the measures to prevent this, it would be so risky and would have definitely happened,” Vuthy said, replying to defense lawyer. “All messages have meaning to overthrow the government. He said.
Deputy Prosecutor Seng Hieng also used similar Facebook posts and videos to support the charge that the nine leaders were attempting to overthrow the government with their plan to return to Cambodia.
Soung Chanthan, a lawyer representing the government, then echoed the prosecutor that the nine defendants wanted to topple the government, as evidenced by their statements and social media posts.
“Defendants had announced that the return on November 9 is to topple the government,” he said.
Defense lawyer Sam Sokong said comments the prosecution and investigators had characterized as incitement or attempt to overthrow the government were actually political messaging aimed at a rival.
“I think that it is a citizen’s right to exercise their freedom of expression, assembly, and especially if there is no action taken so far,” he said.
“Sam Rainsy is a politician, so what he had been raised up is a political message,” Sokong said.
He also took umbrage with the trial proceedings when all the defendants were overseas and unable to return.
Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator at rights group ADHOC, said the some of the senior CNRP leaders had expressed intent to come back for the trials but were being blocked from entering the country.
“The [defendants] have the will to come but they can’t because the police is still processing cases against them,” he said.
The trial will resume on February 9.