A mass trial of critics and opponents of Cambodia’s government charged with treason for their nonviolent political activities resumed Tuesday, amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent.
Only six of 44 defendants summoned by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court turned up at Tuesday’s session, said defense lawyer Sam Sokong. The trial had been suspended for more than a year due to coronavirus restrictions.
The case, which comes amid a wave of setbacks for democratic reformers in Southeast Asia, is a reminder that many governments in the region use the judiciary to harass and punish their opponents.
The practice is being vividly illustrated in Myanmar, where the military ousted Aung Suu Kyi in February and has since slammed her with a series of charges that could add up to more than 100 years in prison. On Monday, the 76-year-old Nobel laureate was given a reduced sentence of two years, while she faces other outstanding cases.
In Phnom Penh, a Cambodian-American lawyer, Theary Seng — who lives on the outskirts of the capital city and is one of the most outspoken critics of Prime Minister Hun Sen — made a show of defiance when she attended the reopened trial.
Theary Seng arrived wearing the costume of a Cambodian classical Apsara dancer. Her hands held out lotus flowers as she walked slowly and quietly in front of the courthouse, followed by a throng of journalists.
“This is political theater and unlike the other actors I have my own role, I write my own role," Theary Seng told reporters.
She said her traditional outfit cast her as a “wounded Apsara” dancer that could represent "the Cambodian population suffering under this autocratic regime.”
Theary Seng says she has no political party affiliation, but most of those summoned are supporters of the disbanded Cambodia National Rescue Party. The party’s self-exiled head and co-founder, Sam Rainsy, was one of the no-shows at the resumed trial, while other absentees lived in the remote countryside and were unaware of the court date, lawyer Sam Sokong said.
Almost all of the defendants have been charged with conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony, which together carry a maximum penalty of 12 years in prison, according to defense lawyers and rights activists. Most of the defendants are accused of being involved with organizing a failed trip home by Sam Rainsy that authorities blocked in November 2019.
Defendants on Tuesday testified that they had no knowledge of plans for Sam Rainsy’s foiled return to Cambodia, lawyer Sam Sokong said.
The trial, which had been suspended since November 2020, is just a small part of a crackdown that began in 2017 when the country’s high court ordered the Cambodia National Rescue Party dissolved. It is widely believed the action was taken to help ensure that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party would win the 2018 general election. It ended up sweeping all the National Assembly seats, but the government has kept a tight leash on all political activity, even as it recently released some political and social activists from detention.
Hun Sen has been in power for 36 years and says he intends to stay in office until 2028. Last week, he endorsed one of his sons to be his successor.
Jared Genser, an American human rights lawyer who was a classmate of Theary Seng at the University of Michigan Law School, traveled to Cambodia to offer his support to his friend.
“This doesn’t demonstrate strength on the part of Prime Minister Hun Sen, it demonstrates weakness," Genser said, referring to the charges facing Theary Seng and others.
He called on Cambodian authorities to end all mass trials targeting critics and opponents of the government.
Genser served as international counsel to Aung San Suu Kyi in 2006-2010 when she was held under house arrest by a previous military government in Myanmar.
In an email Monday, Genser described the detention of Suu Kyi and other senior members of her political party as the "only way to solidify the junta’s iron grip on power,” as Myanmar's rulers squelch its democracy experiment.
In Tuesday's court session in Cambodia, the judge announced that a verdict would be delivered on Feb. 8, if the hearings proceed according to plan, lawyer Sokong added.
As she was leaving the courthouse, Theary Seng told reporters that the court had set a separate trial date of Dec. 28 for her.
She added that she wouldn't give in to what she described as the authorities' intimidation or threats.
“I know they wanted me to leave Cambodia, because then I would not be allowed to come back," she said. "That is why I still keep staying here.”