Cambodia begins treason trial of 37 opposition figures

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodian activists and former opposition lawmakers accused of trying to help an exiled political candidate return home stood trial on treason charges Thursday with few of the defendants in attendance.

Former opposition leader Sam Rainsy and several top leaders of the disbanded Cambodia National Rescue Party were among those absent, being either in exile or in hiding to escape what they deem to be political persecution. Just three of the 37 defendants showed up for the hearing in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, defense lawyer Sam Sokong said.

The CNRP was disbanded just ahead of the 2018 general election by a court that ruled the opposition party had plotted to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose authoritarian rule has kept him in power for 37 years. Cambodian courts are widely believed to be under the influence of Hun Sen, and the disbanding of his party’s main rival allowed his party to sweep all of the seats in the National Assembly.

The 37 defendants have been charged with conspiracy to commit treason and could receive a sentence of five to 10 years in prison if convicted.

The charges were mostly in connection with organizing the abortive trip home in January 2021 of Mu Sochua, the CNRP’s former deputy chief.

It was the second time opposition party leaders in exile were thwarted in their attempts to rejoin the political struggle at home.

In November 2019, 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 that he insists was politically motivated and since then has faced numerous other legal challenges.

The current trial is the third of three Cambodia has held related to the failed returns of the opposition leaders, with the nearly 130 defendants split into three groups for manageability. Most defendants, however, have never turned up in court.

In March, the court convicted 21 people and sentenced them to five to 10 years in prison for treason and conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony. Those convicted included Sam Rainsy, his wife Tioulong Saumura, six former lawmakers and ordinary party supporters.

The same court in June convicted a Cambodian-American lawyer, Theary Seng, and 60 opposition supporters of treason, handing down prison sentences ranging from five to eight years.

In both earlier trials, the defendants were accused of helping to organize Sam Rainsy’s abortive 2019 trip home.

When the third verdict would be delivered wasn’t known.