Mass trial of Cambodian opposition members charged with treason

The Clooney Foundation for Justice – established by lawyer Amal Clooney and her actor husband George Clooney – said ‘Cambodia must stop misusing its laws to criminalize dissent’.

People on a prison truck arrive at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022 [Heng Sinith/AP]
Prisoners arrive by police truck at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, Cambodia, on September 15, 2022 [File: Heng Sinith/AP Photo]

Cambodian opposition party activists and former lawmakers have been put on trial for treason, the latest mass trial of opponents of the country’s long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen.

A total of 37 defendants were summoned to the court in the capital, Phnom Penh, on Thursday, though only three were physically present as the majority were either in exile abroad or in hiding, defence lawyer Sam Sokong said.

The hearing was the third mass trial targeting members of the popular opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which in 2013 came close to defeating Hun Sen’s party.

The Clooney Foundation for Justice, established by lawyer Amal Clooney and her actor husband George Clooney, said on Thursday that the conviction in an earlier mass trial that involved Cambodian-American lawyer Theary Seng was “a travesty of justice”.

“Theary Seng was convicted not because of what she did, but because she supported democratic change in Cambodia,” the foundation said in a statement.

“Expressing political views should not have been the basis for criminal charges, let alone a conviction and prison sentence. Cambodia must stop misusing its laws to criminalize dissent,” the foundation said.

The CNRP was banned just ahead of the 2018 general election by a court that ruled the opposition party had plotted to overthrow Hun Sen, whose authoritarian rule has kept him in power for 37 years.

Cambodian courts are widely understood to be under the influence of Hun Sen.

The disbanding of the opposition allowed his party to sweep all seats in the 2018 election, effectively turning Cambodia into a one-party state.

The allegations of treason mostly stem from an abortive attempt by a top CNRP leader, Mu Sochua, to return to Cambodia from self-exile abroad.

The defendants are accused of committing treason by helping organise the trip.

Among those charged is the party’s co-founder and longtime Hun Sen opponent, Sam Rainsy, who currently lives in France.

The trial, which started in 2020 but was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, involved more than 100 defendants who were divided into three separate trial groups for manageability.

More than 80 people were convicted in the first two mass trials earlier this year, receiving sentences of up to 10 years.

In March, the court convicted 21 people and sentenced them to between five and 10 years in prison for treason and conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony.

Those convicted included opposition leader Sam Rainsy, his wife Tioulong Saumura, six former lawmakers and other party supporters.

The same court in June convicted Cambodian-American lawyer, Theary Seng, and 60 opposition supporters of treason, handing down prison sentences ranging from five to eight years.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies