A Phnom Penh court convicted around 60 opposition figures including an outspoken US-Cambodian activist in a mass trial Tuesday as long-serving leader Hun Sen cracks down on dissent ahead of national elections next year.
The defendants faced charges ranging from treason to incitement and conspiracy over opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s failed bid to return to Cambodia in 2019 — a move characterised by the government as an aborted bid to overthrow Hun Sen.
While some were senior figures in the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) directly involved in organising the return, many were prosecuted simply for posting support on social media.
Sam Rainsy, who has lived in France since 2015 to avoid jail for convictions he says are politically motivated, had another eight years added to his existing sentence.
“The political repression against the opposition gets more and more violent, and I would say also more and more blind,” he told AFP.
“It targets all spheres of society, and actually targets freedom of expression, which is not tolerated under part of the authorities.”
Outside court, US-Cambodian lawyer and campaigner Theary Seng — dressed as the Statue of Liberty — was abruptly dragged into a car by police after receiving a six-year jail term for treason.
“I am ready for a guilty verdict because this regime will not let me go free,” Theary Seng said before her conviction.
“It will be an unfair and unjust verdict because I am innocent, the others charged with me are innocent,” the 51-year-old added.
Following her detention, there was a brief scuffle outside the court between police and relatives of those convicted, as well as supporters of Theary Seng.
“We are deeply troubled by today’s unjust verdicts,” a spokesman for the US embassy in Phnom Penh said, calling for her and others convicted to be released.
The embassy urged Cambodian authorities to “stop politically motivated trials” against political activists, journalists, and human rights campaigners.
“Freedom of expression and association, and tolerance of dissenting views, are vital components of democracy,” US ambassador Patrick Murphy added in a tweet.
– ‘Living in a dictatorship’ –
Theary Seng is among scores caught up in a push to detain and arrest former members of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), human rights defenders, and any dissenting voices.
Several defendants have already been jailed, while many remain at large or have fled Cambodia — 27 of Tuesday’s convictions were in absentia, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said, with sentences ranging from five to eight years.
“The mass trials against political opposition members are really about preventing any electoral challenge to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s rule, but they have also come to symbolise the death of Cambodia’s democracy,” HRW spokesman Phil Robertson said.
“By creating a political dynamic that relies on intimidation and persecution of government critics, Hun Sen demonstrates his total disregard for democratic rights.”
The prime minister is one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, having been in power for 37 years, and is reportedly grooming his eldest son.
Theary Seng was charged by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony.
“We are living in a dictatorship,” she said, claiming Hun Sen’s government “uses the law as a weapon against its own people”.
She added that “this regime is imprisoning liberty and freedom”.
Ahead of recent local elections, the United Nations Human Rights Office said it was disturbed by reports of opposition obstruction in a “paralysing political environment”.
Hun Sen’s political party later announced a landslide win.