PHNOM PENH – Rights advocate and lawyer Seng Chan Theary recollects how it was political and ideological differences that got her parents killed by the Khmer Rouge in Svay Rieng province in the 1970s.
Now, she believes her political affiliation to the Cambodia National Rescue Party is the reason she is one of close to 140 people invited to attend trial hearings scheduled to begin Thursday about allegations of incitement and conspiracy to topple the government.
“This is what I think,” Seng Theary, 50, told VOA Khmer from her home in Kandal province’s Kien Svay district. “I am not sure what I did as I am in the dark about the details of the cases where I am charged.”
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has summoned at least 138 people to attend trial hearings starting Nov. 26, over a variety of charges. The defendants, who include senior party leaders, supporters and former CNRP officials, face at least one of the following charges: incitement, attack against the government and conspiracy to topple the government.
At least 58 officials, many of whom are exiled overseas, have been summoned to attend the first hearing on Thursday, including Seng Theary. The Cambodian-American activist, who used to lead the Center for Social Development in Phnom Penh, said she was unware of the exact reasons for the charges but assumes it is linked to her support of the “nine-finger campaign.”
The campaign was launched in September 2019 to support the return of exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy in November last year. His attempted return was unsuccessful in part due to travel bans enforced by the Cambodian government.
Seng Theary supported the campaign by posting a photo of herself holding up nine fingers on social media.
“I did join the nine-finger campaign last year, which was a worldwide campaign, that I did join both in the country and during my participation in a conference in Norway,” she said.
“I never denied that as I am a supporter for Cambodia National Rescue Party in my private capacity in which there is no secret about that.”
The CNRP was dissolved by court order in 2017 for allegedly attempting to mount a color revolution against the government and 118 of its senior officials banned from politics.
Seng Theary said the trial hearing was an attempt to quell any remaining dissent in the country and to “destroy democracy.”
Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson Y Rin said all 140 defendants are required to attend the trials in person starting Thursday. He dismissed accusations from Seng Theary that it was procedurally irregular for her to have only 20 days to prepare for the trial.
“This is her point of view, but it is important that they show up at the court on the day [of trial] and show the truth,” Y Rin told VOA Khmer. “Whatever they say, let them tell the judges during the trial sessions.”
Sam Sokong, one of the defense lawyers who is expected to represent most of the 140 defendants, said around 50 of them were expected to join Thursday’s hearing, and that most of the others were living overseas.
The veteran CNRP lawyer said it was challenging to represent the large number of clients, especially given that most of the summons were issued only this month.
“We cannot manage to study each case in detail for each of the defendants nor make proper consultations to ensure the defense is up to international standards and to ensure a fair and just trial,” Sam Sokong said.
Seng Theary has retained the services of American lawyer Jared Genser, who was her classmate at the University of Michigan in the United States. Genser said he had submitted an “urgent action appeal” to UN human rights experts for Cambodia and freedom of expression.
“So, just reinforcing the pre-determined outcome, she has no ability to prepare for her trial and she could be tried, sentenced, convicted, and taken to jail within minutes of arriving in court, as has happened previously to other dissidents,” Genser said in a statement.
Bou Sokkheang, a 33-year-old motorcycle taxi driver, will also head to court on Thursday. The resident of Kandal province’s Sa’ang district said he had been arrested and then released in Poipet town in northwestern Cambodia awaiting Sam Rainsy’s return in November 2019.
A grassroots CNRP supporter, Bou Sokkheang said he did not hold any formal position in the party and was unclear why his support for the opposition had resulted in court charges.
“This society is full of powerful people abusing others, extrajudicial killings and violence that which is why I joined [the CNRP] and I do not ask for anything but for change,” Bou Sokkheang said.
Seng Theary said she is expecting the worst and has prepared for the possibility of a conviction and prison sentence.
“I actually prepared myself for prison. After I received the warrant, I cut my hair short, really short, to combat lice while living in prison just in case they do not have enough shampoo for me,” she said.