A court in Cambodia sentenced the acting chief of the country’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Sam Rainsy to a 25-year jail term in absentia on Monday for plotting a “coup” as part of his attempt to return home from self-imposed exile in late 2019, according to officials.
Sam Rainsy, who has lived in Paris since 2015 to avoid a string of charges and convictions he says are politically motivated, was convicted “for an [attempted] attack in Cambodia in 2019,” a Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson said.
Eight other CNRP leaders—Sam Rainsy’s wife Tioulong Saumura, Eng Chhai Eang, Mu Sochua, Ou Chanrith, Long Ry, Nuth Romdoul, Ho Vann, and Men Sothavarin—were also sentenced in absentia to between 20 and 22 years in jail. All nine were also banned from voting or running as candidates in future elections, according to pro-government media outlet Fresh News.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service, Sam Rainsy called the decision a “political verdict issued by [Prime Minister] Hun Sen’s puppet court.”
“Our lawyers will study the sentence, but we don’t care much about it because we know it is based on a ruse,” he said.
“We are focusing on continuing to fight for democracy. Once we bring democracy back to Cambodia, it will be the end of the [puppet] court and the dictatorship.”
Earlier, Sam Rainsy said in a statement on Twitter that Hun Sen “is afraid of any risk of my returning to the Cambodian political scene.”
“Hun Sen also dreads the prospect of any free and fair election which would inevitably lead to the end of his autocratic regime.”
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November 2017 and barred its members from taking part in political activities, two months after the arrest of party president Kem Sokha for his role in an alleged scheme to topple Hun Sen’s government. The ban, along with a wider crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s 2018 general election. The strongman has ruled Cambodia for some 36 years, making him one of the world’s longest-serving leaders.
In November 2019, Sam Rainsy attempted to return to Cambodia to lead peaceful pro-democracy protests against the government. His plan to enter the country from Thailand was thwarted when he was refused permission to board a Thai Airways plane in Paris.
Around 150 CNRP members and activists have since been put on trial for “treason” and “incitement,” mostly for voicing support for Sam Rainsy’s failed return bid.
In a statement, the CNRP said it “fully denies” all charges against the CNRP leadership and “resolutely rejects” the court’s verdict.
It cited a lack of evidence in the case, as well aswhat it said were several violations of the requirements of a fair trial according to the Cambodian Criminal Code and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“With the opposition leaders and close supporters unjustly sentenced, the regime has ensured that next to banned opposition party now the leaders will be fully eliminated from the political scene by being jailed or exiled, thus eliminating any serious electorate threat,” the party said.
But Sam Rainsy told RFA he believes that mounting pressure from the international community over reversals on democratic freedoms will force Hun Sen to negotiate with the CNRP.
“Employing international instruments like the [Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act] on individuals who are responsible for abusing rights and freedoms, but which do not affect the general economy, will put pressure on [Hun Sen] to change the course,” he said.
‘A new nadir’
Analysts and rights groups dismissed Monday’s convictions as politically motivated and predetermined.
Political commentator Seng Sary told RFA that the sentences were meant to prevent Sam Rainsy and the other eight CNRP leaders from participating in the country’s commune and general elections in 2022 and 2023, respectively.
“Strategically, it is a threat to scare other CNRP politicians [into leaving the CNRP] and make them ask [the government] for political rehabilitation so they can create new political parties to participate in the 2022 and 2023 elections,” he said.
In a statement, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, called the sentences “outrageously harsh” and suggested they were part of a bid to “slam the door shut on these exiles ever returning to Cambodia.”
“The charges are ridiculous, being based on bogus, politically motivated allegations manufactured by a dictatorial, single-party state determined to destroy the remaining fragments of Cambodia’s shattered democratic system, along with the exercise of basic civil and political rights such as freedom of expression, association, and peaceful, public assembly,” he said.
Robertson noted that “even with the cases being heard by a kangaroo court,” Hun Sen refused to allow the defendants to return to Cambodia to face their charges at trial.
“In each of these political show trials, the temptation is to say that Cambodia cannot sink any lower in its violation of human rights, but somehow PM Hun Sen and his colleagues find a way to reach a new nadir,” he said.
“There seems to be no limits to the violations of human rights this government will inflict on the Cambodian people.”
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court had issued a notice last week saying that all trials were to be postponed indefinitely due to a recent spread of the coronavirus, but went ahead with rendering Monday’s verdict without the presence of trial monitors.
“Tricking observers and ultimately also defendants into believing that trials are postponed adds to the outrageous violations of the right to a fair trial in Cambodia,” Robertson said.
Including Monday’s verdict, Sam Rainsy has been sentenced in absentia to a total of 57 years in prison by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. His convictions include plotting and attempting a coup, public defamation, insulting the King under the country’s lese majeste law, incitement to commit grave social unrest, and faking public documents related to a border dispute with Vietnam.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has indefinitely delayed CNRP President Kem Sokha’s trial on treason since March 2020, citing the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as a backlog of legal cases.
Radio Free Asia Copyright © 1998-2016, RFA. Used with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036