A court in Cambodia on Thursday upheld “insurrection” convictions against 11 members, supporters and activists of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), amid an ongoing political crackdown in the country.
After deliberating for two minutes, Judge Plang Samnang said Cambodia’s Court of Appeal in the capital Phnom Penh “decided to uphold the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s verdict … and orders the continued detention of the 11 people,” without providing a reason for the ruling.
The 11 have been incarcerated since 2014 for their alleged role in a July 15, 2014 demonstration held by the CNRP against government manipulation of the general election a year earlier, and restrictions on peaceful assembly, that turned violent when police tried to forcibly remove protesters. In July 2015, they received sentences of from seven to 20 years in prison.
Thursday’s ruling—which family members of the detainees were prevented from attending—signaled the end of a protracted appeal process that began in 2016 and concluded in late April, and featured hearings in which live testimony was extremely limited.
During the proceedings, according to rights group Licadho, plaintiffs were unable to identify the defendants as perpetrators of violence and admitted that other individuals had written at least some of the original complaints.
Virtually identical statements from almost 40 absent members of the paramilitary police were read onto the record, which prevented cross-examination by the defense, and video evidence submitted to the court confirmed that a number of the defendants were actively working to prevent violence during the clash and had personally protected injured authorities, Licadho has said.
Following the verdict, defense lawyer Choung Choungy told RFA’s Khmer Service that he had urged the court to drop all charges against the detainees, who he said were not guilty, and pledged to meet with them in prison to discuss a further appeal.
“My clients have the right to appeal this decision before the Supreme Court, so I will meet with them to discuss this matter,” he said.
Tith Narin, wife of defendant Ouk Pichsamnang, said authorities had prevented her from even handing her husband food during Thursday’s proceedings.
“My life is mired in misery since he has been detained,” she said, adding that she must look after her grandchildren on her own, as their parents are migrant workers in Thailand.
“It’s been more than three years since he has been locked behind bars—it should be time now for him to be released, but this court releases only criminals like rapists and murders, while those who help society are never pardoned.”
Following the verdict, the 11 defendants were returned to prison, where they have been detained for more than 1,000 days.
Thursday’s ruling comes amid a crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on Cambodia’s political opposition, NGOs and independent media, in what observers say is part of a bid to ensure his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) remains in power following a general election set for July 29.
The Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in November after it was accused of plotting to overthrow the government, and the party’s former president Sam Rainy has urged supporters to shun the polls to avoid legitimizing what is expected to be a blowout victory for the ruling party in an election that will be neither free nor fair.
Several CNRP officials and activists have fled Cambodia since the party was banned and are currently living in self-imposed exile to avoid facing cases widely seen as politically motivated and tried in a court system that lacks independence.
The CNRP received more than 3 million votes—accounting for nearly half of the country’s registered voters—in Cambodia’s 2013 general election, and enjoyed similar success in last year’s commune ballot, making it the only legitimate challenger to the CPP ahead of July.
The Khmer Times quoted Meach Sovannara, the former director of the CNRP’s information department and one of the 11 defendants, after Thursday’s ruling as saying that Hun Sen should seek a political compromise between the country’s two main parties for the good of the nation.
“Only politicians can resolve this issue because it is politically motivated,” he said.
“I hope that Samdech Hun Sen will have a compromise to release all of us,” he added, using an honorific for the prime minister.
Analyst Lao Mong Hay also called for political détente, saying that without it, “all the  detainees will continue to be incarcerated.”
“However, I have seen no hope for such a deal amid the current political situation,” he added.
New York-based Human Rights Watch had called on Cambodia Tuesday to “quash the politically motivated ‘insurrection’ convictions” against the 11 CNRP members ahead of the court decision on their appeal.
Human Rights Watch’s Asia director Brad Adams called their 2015 conviction “one of the first of many bogus cases brought against the opposition after the party nearly won the disputed 2013 elections” and suggested that incarcerating them was part of a bid by Hun Sen and the CPP to “stave off defeat at the ballot-box.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.