In a move that signals a significant escalation in the Cambodian government’s crackdown on the outlawed opposition party and dissent, a court has sentenced seven of its former officials for “plotting” in a case linked to their support of the unsuccessful return of self-exiled opposition figure Sam Rainsy in November 2019.
The Tbong Khmum Provincial Court sentenced five former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) officials to seven years in prison on Tuesday. Two of the dissidents were sentenced to five years. Family members of the defendants and the media were banned from the court proceedings, said Am Sam Ath, deputy director of Licadho, a local rights group.
All were convicted under Article 453 of the Cambodian Criminal Code, which defines conspiracy as “any scheme set up between several persons to commit a criminal attempt" and "materialized by one or several concrete actions." It carries a punishment of five to 10 years imprisonment.
All had posted comments on Facebook between 2018 and 2019 supporting Sam Rainsy’s return from self-imposed exile in France.
Sam Sokong, the defense lawyer, said, “Among the seven convicted people, there is only one in jail and others have fled and hid. … There is no evidence that they are involved in plotting.”
Campaign by Hun Sen government
The convictions were the latest move in a long-running campaign against dissent by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held power in Cambodia in various coalitions since 1985.
But when the CNRP had a better-than-expected performance at the local elections in June 2017, the government arrested party president Kem Sokha in September, then dissolved the party before the year ended, stripping more than 5,000 CNRP officials of their elected positions.
The result was Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won every seat in the 2018 National Assembly and a crackdown on opposition.
Sam Sokong, the defense attorney, said more than 200 people have been arrested, charged and jailed for “plotting.”
Soeng Senkaruna, a spokesman for the Cambodian human rights group Adhoc, said that charge is a way to persecute and intimidate people, some of whom were arrested without warrants.
Some of those arrested have been released “but the charges have not been dropped,” said Sam Sokong, adding that he expected 14 opposition activists to face trial later this month for “plotting.”
Since July, the government has imprisoned 19 activists, artists and human rights defenders for “peacefully exercising their constitutional rights to free expression and assembly,” according to the Licadho website. Union leader Rong Chhun was the first arrested, then the government picked up youth leaders, environmental activists, rappers and a Buddhist monk for “speaking out about issues affecting their country and communities.”
U.N. human rights spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani responded to the arrest of Rong Chhun and the others, saying, “The current situation marks a deepening of the government’s intolerance to dissent and repression of the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”
On August 12, the European Union (EU) removed the duty-free, quota-free access Cambodian goods enjoyed under the Everything But Arms (EBA) program that is tied to democracy building and the development of a civil society.
The European Union’s European External Action Service (EEAS) said last week that there had not been “any indication of substantive progress” in its call for Cambodia to open up the country’s political space for a “credible and democratic opposition to operate.”
“The EU is seriously concerned about the continuous deterioration of democracy and human rights in the country,” EEAS spokesperson Nabila Massrali told VOA Khmer.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, in an email to VOA Khmer, said, “Cambodian human rights and democracy advocates are facing [a] concerted onslaught of political persecution that seeks to transform Cambodia from what was supposed to be a multiparty democracy into a ruthless, one-party dictatorship.”
“The country’s kangaroo courts are operating hand-in-hand with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to sling activists into prison, like we saw Tbong Khmum just the other day, as judges don’t even make a pretense of a fair and public trial. Even basic civil and political liberties, like expressing views on Facebook or holding a peaceful, public vigil outside a courthouse, are being threatened,” he said.
Robertson added, “Hun Sen thinks the international community is so distracted by COVID-19 [the disease caused by the coronavirus] that they will not say anything.”
Speaking from an undisclosed location, Yem Vanneth, 27, a former commune councilor and CNRP member, told VOA Khmer she was the defendant sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison. She said the government wants to intimidate and silence Cambodians who support Sam Rainsy’s return to Cambodia.
“It is very unfair and unacceptable for us,” she said. “It is to intimidate me and to threaten other people who want to welcome Sam Rainsy.”
Vann Sophat, a former CNRP district councilor who was outside the court on Tuesday, told VOA Khmer that the six other convicted individuals were Kong Sam Ann, Chak Hour, Mean La, Vann Sophat, Sim Seakleng and Chim Vannak.
Vann Sophat added that Chim Vannak, a former CNRP activist, has joined the ruling CPP and was given a suspended sentence.
Muy Ly, whose father, Kong Sam Ann, was convicted Tuesday, said the former Memot district councilor had been arrested earlier this month and sentenced to seven years in prison on Tuesday.
Muy Ly said she didn’t know where her father would be imprisoned because the charges were filed in Phnom Penh, but the trial was conducted outside the capital in Tbong Khmum province. VOA Khmer could not reach Hak Seaklim, a Tbong Khmum provincial spokesperson, for comment.
Chin Malin, spokesperson for Cambodia’s Justice Ministry, said the court had “enough evidence” to prosecute and supported the convictions.
“It is not related to the [CNRP] leaders,” Chin Malin said. “It is related to those people’s actual activities, which have criminal elements.”
Tuesday’s convictions have increased the anxiety among the family members of former CNRP members, as has Hun Sen’s suggestion that the prolonged and often delayed treason trial against opposition leader Kem Sokha could be delayed until 2024, according to the government-aligned newspaper Khmer Times. That is well beyond scheduled local and national elections in 2022 and 2023.
Cindy Cao, who researches EU-Cambodian relations at the Brussels-based European Institute of Asian Studies, said in an email to VOA Khmer that the recent series of arrests and Hun Sen’s remarks on the Kem Sokha trial reflected Phnom Penh’s “consistent defiance” of the EU’s efforts encouraging democracy.
She suggested the Cambodian government was likely balancing political concessions it was comfortable with and the economic cost of its continued crackdown, the latter likely resulting in domestic unrest.
“Many studies suggest that authoritarian states would prefer to pay an economic cost, rather than imperil its regime survival,” Cao said.
Cambodian government spokesperson Phay Siphan repeated the regime’s defense of its actions, which is to maintain the country’s sovereignty. He added that the current clampdown was unrelated to the EBA revocation.
“Cambodia prioritizes peace and the absence of chaos in society because Cambodia is an underdeveloped country – not as [rich as] the EU – so the arrests and the crackdowns are to ensure harmonious living conditions,” he said.
Aun Chhengpor contributed to this report.