A Cambodian court convicted 13 people of plotting to overthrow the government in a case slammed by rights groups as politically motivated and part of Prime Minister Hun Sen's strategy of using the judiciary to discredit the opposition.
The 13 were linked to a little-known Denmark-based group called the Khmer National Liberation Front (KNLF) whose "main goal is to create an armed force to topple the government," Judge Seng Neang of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court said.
Only seven of the accused appeared in court while the others, including KNLF chief Sam Serey, were sentenced in absentia.
Sam Serey, a resettled Cambodian refugee who resides in Denmark, was sentenced to nine years in jail, while the others were handed sentences ranging from five to eight years.
The seven, some of whom were Buddhist monks at the time of their arrest in neighboring Thailand last year, protested the verdict, shouting in court that it was "unjust."
Judge Seng Neang said the KNLF had set up an armed force based in Thailand and planned to explode bombs at government buildings in Cambodia, but the seven hit out at the court for arriving at the verdict without any evidence or witnesses.
The verdict was based on a one-day trial for the 13 who had been charged with “opposing the nation” by “treacherously plotting” to conduct insurrectionary attacks liable to endanger Cambodia’s state institutions or violate its national integrity.
“Yet during the trial no evidence of a crime committed by any of the accused was presented,” U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement on Thursday.
It noted that while the detainees were still under investigation, Hun Sen had spoken about the KNLF case at a campaign rally for his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in Prey Veng province.
Opposition links rejected
Hun Sen had alleged that “armed rebels” and “terrorists”—including organizers of the KNLF—were hiding within the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).
The CNRP has denied any links to the 13 defendants.
“The conviction of any of these 13 defendants will not be proof of guilt but rather of Hun Sen’s control over Cambodia’s courts to weaken the opposition with false accusations,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“No one should be sentenced to prison to serve Hun Sen’s political agenda,” he said.
Crimes against humanity
Sam Serey, speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service from Denmark, rejected claims that his movement was involved in violence, saying it was mainly gathering documents to back charges against Hun Sen for crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Court.
“The front is working to liberate people to have freedom and democracy,” he said. “I am not surprised about the conviction because everything is so unjust for Cambodians.”
“Our goal is to seek justice based on international law. We want the international community to pressure the government to bring about freedom. We don’t use violence to topple the government.”
Minority Rights Organization (MIRO) Director Ang Chanrith also questioned the conviction of the 13.
“Based on testimonies [of those present in court], they all rejected the confession document produced by the police. They said that they were tortured during questioning and police forced them to thumbprint their names on the confession,” he said.
He said that the court failed to prove that the KNLF was involved in any violent actions.
Reported by Yeang Socheameata and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.