PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A Cambodian American lawyer and dozens of members of a now-disbanded opposition party were found guilty of treason on Tuesday in a trial that was the latest move to tame any opposition to the long reign of Prime Minister Hun. Sen.
Lawyer Theary Seng and most of the other defendants had been charged over an unsuccessful attempt by the leader of Cambodia’s former National Rescue Party to return from exile in 2019. Cambodian authorities have blocked Sam Rainsy’s return and have alleged that the 60 defendants were involved in arranging his trip. , which Theary Seng and others have denied.
Cambodian courts are widely believed to be under the influence of Hun Sen, whose authoritarian style of rule kept him in power for 37 years. The Cambodia National Rescue Party was his party’s biggest rival before it was disbanded by a court ruling just before the 2018 national elections that resulted in a clean sweep by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Theary Seng and most of the others guilty of conspiracy to commit treason, defense attorney Choung Chou Ngy said. Theary Seng was sentenced to six years in prison and the others to terms of five to eight years.
Many of the 60 defendants fled into exile or went into hiding, and it was not immediately clear how many appeared in court for the verdict on Tuesday.
Theary Seng stood in court when the verdict was announced, saying she wanted her arrest to be public and “not in the shadows”. Media saw at least three police officers approach Theary Seng, hold her hand and body and push her into a police truck shortly after the verdict.
She was dressed as Lady Liberty, in a light green dress and a crown with “Freedom” written on it, and from time to time she raised her imitation torch and shouted “free the political prisoners”. She wore themed costumes for her court hearings to publicize her belief that Cambodia is not a democratic nation and the trial is unfair.
She told reporters she was ready for a “fictitious” guilty verdict.
“I am ready and prepared to go to the infamous Cambodian prison for my political views, for my beliefs, for my belief in democracy, for my belief in freedom,” she said. “I am ready to pay the price of prison to live according to my conscience and my belief in freedom and justice.”
Choung Chou Ngy, who represents Theary Seng but not the other defendants, said he plans to appeal. He said the defendants who received five-year sentences had their sentences suspended. But those who were sentenced to terms of six to eight years were sentenced to prison and the judge ordered the police to track down those who were sentenced in absentia so they could face justice.
The dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, its withdrawal from the polls and the government crackdown on the media and independent voices paved the way for Hun Sen’s party to sweep the 2018 elections and claim all National Assembly seats. . He has repeatedly declared his intention to remain in office until 2028 and has endorsed one of his sons to succeed him.
Sam Rainsy, Hun Sen’s main political enemy, has been in exile since 2016 to avoid serving prison sentences for defamation and other charges he says are politically motivated.
The trial of Theary Seng and his co-defendants began in 2020 but was suspended until December 2021 due to coronavirus restrictions. Initially, nearly 130 defendants were named and the proceedings were split into three trials for manageability.
In a related case in March, the court convicted 21 people of treason and related charges for their nonviolent political opposition to the Cambodian government. Seven exiled leaders of the National Rescue Party of Cambodia, including Sam Rainsy, were sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia. Thirteen other defendants were ordinary party supporters who were ordered by the court to serve more than three years.