Senior executives of the disbanded opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party on Tuesday announced their plan to return from self-imposed exile to fight criminal charges against them in court.
The party leaders are among about 130 opposition supporters and other dissidents who are due to be tried early next year on charges including treason and incitement to commit felony. The CNRP executives also face the charge of planning an attack involving violence that could hurt the state and its institutions.
Most of the opposition party leaders, and others among the group to be tried, fled Cambodia in late 2017, when Prime Minister Hun Sen launched a sweeping crackdown on his opponents and the CNRP was forced by the high court to disband and its lawmakers removed from Parliament. Many people believe the court acted to ensure that Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party won the 2018 general election, which it did by sweeping all the seats in Parliament.
Hun Sen has been in power for 35 years and has often been accused of heading an authoritarian regime. Several Western nations have imposed sanctions on his government, mainly after concluding that the 2018 election was neither free nor fair.
The plan by CNRP leaders to return represents their second attempt to rejoin the political struggle at home. In November last year, Sam Rainsy, the party’s co-founder, sought to return from exile with several colleagues but was blocked by the government. He has been in exile since 2016 to avoid serving a prison sentence for a defamation conviction he insists was politically motivated.
He is not one of the party executives that the CNRP announced would return on Jan. 4. The most prominent would-be returnee is deputy party leader Mu Sochua, a former lawmaker who holds dual Cambodian and American citizenship and now lives in the United States.
Many of the cases against the nearly 130 facing trial, who are mostly charged with treason for taking part in nonviolent political activities over the past three years, involve planning for Sam Rainsy's abortive return.
On Thursday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court began hearings in those cases, but quickly adjourned, saying it would split the large number of defendants into two groups to make the proceedings easier. The first group will have its initial hearing on Jan. 14 and the other on March 4.