A court in Cambodia on Thursday sentenced 36 senior officials of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, most of whom have already fled the country, to between five and seven years in prison.
The opposition officials were convicted of supporting party Vice President Mu Sochua in her plan to return to Cambodia from the U.S. as part of what the court said was a conspiracy to overthrow the government.
The CNRP had been the country’s main opposition to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party until late 2017. The Supreme Court dissolved the party after it made substantial gains in local communal elections.
The ban paved the way for the CPP to win every seat in the country’s National Assembly in the 2018 general election and kicked off a five-year crackdown on the political opposition that saw many of those affiliated with the CNRP arrested and detained on charges like conspiracy, incitement, and treason.
On Thursday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued seven-year sentences to 11 CNRP officials, including President Sam Rainsy, who is currently living in self-exile in France, and Mu Sochua, who is based in the U.S. The court sentenced the 25 other officials to five years in jail. Only three of the defendants are expected to serve any time as they are the only ones currently in Cambodia.
“This is not fair!” Teang Chenda, the wife of defendant Voeung Samnang, told RFA following the verdict. “There is no evidence against him, but the court is giving him five years. We cannot accept this.”
Teang Chenda said that she has been facing financial difficulties since her husband’s arrest and detention.
Lor Chhunthy, a lawyer for the defendants, told RFA that he plans to file an appeal on their behalf.
None of the party officials are guilty of any crime, Ny Sokha, director of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association NGO, told RFA.
“We can’t prosecute people because they are using freedom of expression or expressing opposition views against the government. This [kind of sentence] doesn’t suggest that the country adheres to democratic principles,” he said.
Delay could prevent run
Meanwhile, civil society officials said Thursday that they fear the court’s long delay in announcing a verdict in CNRP cofounder Kem Sokha’s case could prevent him from running in Cambodia’s 2023 general election.
Kem Sokha, accused of treason, has been on trial for about two years. The court heard closing arguments in the case Wednesday, but will not announce its decision until March 3, leaving little time to prepare for next year’s polls.
Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association spokesperson Soeung Senkaruna told RFA that he believes the delay was intentional, and said it could undermine Kem Sokha’s political rights.
“If we talk about the schedule of the verdict announcement, it is only four months before the election, so it will be difficult to organize any political activities. [Kem Sokha] won’t have enough of a foundation to compete in the election or to be part of a fair competition,” he said.
Kem Sokha needs at least seven months to prepare, Kang Savang of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia told RFA.
“If [the verdict is announced] at the beginning of next month, he will be able to enter politics on time,” said Kang Savang.
RFA was unable to reach Cambodia’s National Election Committee for comment on Kem Sokha’s case.