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Convictions of Cambodian opposition leaders draw criticism from rights groups

Local security personnel try to grab a banner from supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court Thursday in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
Heng Sinith
Local security personnel try to grab a banner from supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court Thursday in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

A Cambodian court has convicted 19 political opposition leaders of trying to overthrow the government, following a case that one human rights group has described as a "bogus."

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Thursday found the members of the now-dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), and one member's relative, guilty of incitement, attempting to incite military personnel to disobey and conspiracy, the AP reports. Seven defendants, including former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, currently living abroad were tried in absentia. All face five to 10 years in prison.

The convictions received swift condemnation from Human Rights Watch, one of the many advocacy groups that have long criticized Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's treatment of political opponents.

"PM Hun Sen and the ruling party are using these bogus trials to shut the door on any possible return of exiled CNRP leaders, and to hack out any remaining roots of the opposition party in the country by imprisoning those politicians and activists who dare remain in Cambodia," Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of HRW, told NPR.

"This is all about making sure the CNRP networks are thoroughly crushed before the commune elections scheduled in June so there can be no possible political challenges," he said.

The prosecution accused the defendants of conspiring to topple the current government run by Prime Minister Hun Sen on a list of occasions, including using the pandemic to undermine the current regime's credibility by disseminating untrue and inflammatory information.

"This is a sick trick. [They] use rights of freedom of expression but this freedom of expression was hidden behind a trick," deputy prosecutor Seng Heang said during the trial, according to VOD English.

The group was also accused have having a "secret network" and blamed for the partial suspension of the European Union's "Everything But Arms" trade agreement with Cambodia, which was revoked in 2020 over human and labor rights concerns.

"The justice system has again been used as a blunt political tool in an attempt to quash opposition to Hun Sen's dictatorship. Opposing dictators is a duty, not a crime," Sam Rainsy, the exiled CNRP leader who's lived in France since 2005, tweeted in reaction to Thursday's convictions.

His unsuccessful attempt to return to Cambodia in 2019 was also cited by the prosecutor as an example of the opposition trying to rally the people to overthrow the government. Rainsy blames Prime Minister Hun Sen of blocking him from the country and has since vowed to attempt another homecoming.

This latest trial is just the first of several expected mass trials, following the Cambodian government's 2020 prosecution of hundreds of political dissidents and activists.

Hun Sen, a former Khmer Rouge commander, has been in office for more than three decades. Over the years, human rights groups have accused Hun Sen of cracking down, with increasing pressure, on dissidents, the media and rights organizations that he accuses of trying to topple his government.

In 2017, Cambodia saw the most severe government repression in nearly 20 years, Joshua Kurlantzick, senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, told NPR.That year, one of Cambodia's largest English daily newspapers was shuttered for supposedly owing back taxes, main opposition leader Kem Sokah was detained and his opposition CNRP party dissolved. Experts say this was likely all in response to the growing popularity of the opposition movement.

In national elections the following year, Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won all 125 parliamentary seats. The next election parliamentary elections are slated for 2023.

"Cambodia's politicized courts have facilitated Prime Minister Hun Sen's effort to destroy the last remnants of democratic freedoms and civil and political rights in the country," Robertson said in a separate statement released by HRW. "Concerned governments should do all they can to reverse this assault on the Cambodian people."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.