Conviction of Cambodia’s Opposition Leadership Prompts International Backlash

The US, EU, and Australia call for political reconciliation and protections of freedom of expression.
2021-03-02
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Conviction of Cambodia’s Opposition Leadership Prompts International Backlash Australian Ambassador Pablo Kang (L) meets Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister Tea Banh (R) in Phnom Penh, March 2, 2021.
Ambassador Pablo Kang's Twitter feed

The U.S., EU, and Australia called on Cambodia’s government Tuesday to uphold the freedom of expression and pursue national reconciliation through inclusive dialogue after a court sentenced opposition leaders to lengthy jail terms and amid mass trials of dozens of the party’s members.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced acting chief of the 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.

Sam Rainsy, a dual French citizen 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.”

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. The nine, who were prohibited from returning to Cambodia to defend themselves in the trial, were also banned from voting or running as candidates in future elections.

Cambodia’s courts are widely viewed as beholden to the government and Monday’s verdict was swiftly condemned by analysts and rights groups as part of a bid by Prime Minister Hun Sen to ensure that the CNRP will remain unable to mount a challenge to his 36-year rule in upcoming commune and general elections, set for 2022 and 2023.

Responding to the sentencing of the nine CNRP leaders, some of whom hold dual U.S. citizenship, U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy expressed Washington’s concerns via Twitter on Monday.

“We are troubled by sentences targeting political opposition leaders in Cambodia, particularly given a lack of due process,” Murphy wrote. “We urge authorities to reopen political space and allow all voices to be heard and to participate.”

Democratic governance

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.

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.

Since then, Cambodia has carried out a series of mass trials against more than 130 CNRP supporters and civil society activists on charges of “incitement” and “treason” after speaking out critically about Hun Sen’s leadership and in support of Sam Rainsy’s return.

On Tuesday, U.S. Embassy spokesperson Chad Roedemeier reiterated Washington’s stance on Monday’s verdict and told RFA’s Khmer Service that the U.S. views the freedoms of expression and association, the right to peaceful assembly, a free press, an active civil society, and tolerance of dissenting views as “vital components of democratic governance.”

“We urge the Government of Cambodia to protect freedoms of expression and association, as enshrined in the country’s constitution, and call on authorities to take meaningful steps to reopen civic and political space in the lead up to 2022 commune elections and 2023 national elections,” he wrote in an emailed statement.

Responding to U.S. criticism, Kata Orn, spokesperson for the government-aligned Cambodia Human Rights Committee, told RFA that decisions on such cases are made by the courts alone.

“The U.S. has the right to make requests to the court, but the Cambodian government can’t interfere on its behalf because in Cambodia we have checks and balances between the legislative, executive and judicial branches,” he said.

EU and Australia

Monday’s verdict and the mass trials facing other CNRP supporters and civil society members also drew condemnation from the EU and Australia, both of which count dual citizens among the defendants.

In a statement on Tuesday, EU Foreign Affairs and Security Policy spokesperson Nabila Massrali said that all Cambodian citizens, regardless of their political affiliation, should be guaranteed the right to a fair trial, based on the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as Cambodia’s own constitution.

“The Cambodian authorities must respect the rule of law and due process, and ensure that the right to political participation and fundamental freedoms are fully respected, including freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly,” she said.

“The European Union reiterates its call on the Cambodian authorities to initiate a process of national reconciliation through genuine and inclusive dialogue.”

Last year, the EU suspended tariff-free access to its market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme for around one-fifth of Cambodia’s exports, citing rollbacks on democracy and human rights. Several Western nations have threatened sanctions against Cambodia citing similar reasons.

Australian Ambassador to Cambodia Pablo Kang also called out Hun Sen’s government over the legal proceedings against the opposition on Tuesday, following a meeting with Deputy Prime Minister Tea Banh, who also serves as Cambodia’s Defense Minister.

“Concerned re ongoing mass trials, incl of several Australians, + the long sentences imposed on prominent political figures,” he wrote on Twitter. “We urge transparency & fairness in all trials, and for the [Cambodia] Gov’t to rebuild relations with opposition members. Points I made to Deputy PM Tea Banh today.”

Political analyst Em Sovannara told RFA that the Phnom Penh Municipal Court had failed to provide adequate evidence proving the guilt of the CNRP’s leaders. But he suggested that the verdict was preordained in order to meet the political goals of the ruling party.

“The CPP’s strategy is to prepare its younger generation for rule without the opposition party,” he said.

“However, the international community raised issues [against the verdict], saying it is not good for democracy and human rights and, as a result, Cambodia can expect to pay in foreign policy and trade.”

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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