Cambodia: new trial against the democratic opposition

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – On November 26th, yet another trial is set to start against 140 members of the Cambodia National Rescua Party (CNRP), officially dissolved after a Constitutional Court ruling in 2017, in a move called “the end of democracy” in Cambodia, effectively eliminating the entire democratic opposition in the country. This decision, followed also by the arrest of CNRP President Kem Sokha – still under parole – was followed by a forced exodus from the country of the Party leadership, among whom our Honorary Member Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua, Vice-President of CNRP.

The exiles have never renounced their struggle for the return of democracy and rule of law in their country, and continue to work tirelessly with international institutions so that these fundamental principles can be restored. Last year, Sam Rainsy announced his return to the country, but his entry was effectively blocked by Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power since 1985. Now, however, this attempt will be prosecuted in court, with charges of treason, inciting public disorder and other related offences. Prison sentences for such crimes range up to thirty years in detention.

A further evident sign of the complete absence of the rule of law in the country is the impossibility for members of the opposition in exile to partake in the trial against them, and therefore to defend themselves from the accusations according to minimum judicial guarantees and fair trial standards. In a video published on her Twitter page, the Honorable Mu Sochua, Vice-President of CNRP and a participant to our November 23rd conference on political prisoners declared the opposition’s request to be able to return to the country to defend themselves in Court and wrote the following statement:

Summonsed by the Court but Banned by the Hun Sen Regime

My three colleagues and I drove from Rhode Island and crossed through four other states with a night’s rest in Virginia to reach our destination the following day: the Embassy of the Kingdom of Cambodia in Washington, D.C. Two police vehicles were already parked in front of the embassy and the sign said “Closed” . It was Tuesday 10 November. The embassy officials had alerted the police of a protest and asked for assistance.

All we had in our hands to show to the police officers was an envelope addressed to the Minister of Interior of the Government of Cambodia. The letter was our request for valid passports which would be our official documents as Khmer citizens to travel back to Cambodia as ordered by the Municipality Court for a trial. By the end of the day, a four-point statement was issued by the embassy praising itself for the various services available to all Khmer citizens. Point number four is the exemption: “the Embassy shall not serve the small handful Khmer citizens living outside the law.”

The government of Cambodia, represented by its embassy in Washington, D.C. was obstructing the official proceedings of justice by shutting its gates on the day of our visit and by officially declaring its refusal to serve us as Khmer citizens entitled to services. As citizens, we are entitled to vital documents which include passports and other documents as proof of our national identification. Our rights for nationality, identity and the right to return to Cambodia are our constitutional rights. Furthermore, only with valid travel documents can we return to be present on the day of our trial.

The intention of the government of Cambodia to prevent us from being present at our trial is nothing more than to proceed with a trial in absentia which the government’s media apparatus can be used to paint us as cowards, and admit our guilt through our absence. The other reason for keeping us outside of Cambodia is to avoid a mass welcome by the people who continue to consider CNRP ( CNRP) as the only political party that can revive democracy and bring positive change to the country.

The charges range from criminal attempt, treason, incitement to cause public disorder and other related criminal acts. When found guilty , we can face heavy prison sentences up to thirty years.

My three colleagues and I are among the nine CNRP leaders summonsed by the Municipality Court of Phnom Penh also known as the “Nine” – while other 131 CNRP members living inside and outside of Cambodia have been called to a trial that is due on 26 November, 2020. The summonses are posted on the iron gate of the party headquarters, which are currently guarded by police and off-limits to the public.

The arbitrary arrests and prolonged pre- trial detentions of opposition party members, activists, monks, artists and government critics must stop. The show trial on November 26 will further widen the national divide and the victimization of innocent citizens whose lives are already made difficult by the loss of employment, by Covid19 and mounting debts.

Cambodia is a one-party state. Inside the country, opposition members are physically attacked and left with severe injuries or paralyzed for life. No investigation of these attacks has ever been conducted. The families of hundreds of political prisoners endure severe economic and emotional hardship. Their children are forced to leave school. Thousands of our members and supporters are closely monitored by local police, forced to confess or to defect to the ruling party. The intention of the government is to spread fear.

An entire government machinery trained by experts from China is set up to monitor Facebook accounts that are critical of Hun Sen’s mis-management of the pandemic . Those who dare to express their opinions are re-educated by the authorities or are arbitrarily arrested and put in pre-trial detention. A state of emergency law was adopted in June and is at the disposal of the prime minister whenever he wishes to use it.

I also wish to bring to your attention the courage of the #FridayWomen who hold weekly protests to demand the unconditional release of their husbands and fathers who are political prisoners. Despite the harsh physical treatment and verbal abuse by the police and security guards, the Friday Women continue their weekly fight for justice.

A worldwide campaign was launched this June by Cambodians living abroad to end impunity in Cambodia. The aim of the campaign is to take perpetrators of state-backed killings – no matter which position they hold in the government – to an independent justice system.

We will never renounce our struggle for freedom, justice and democracy. This Thursday, 26 November, we will be tried exactly for this reason. The only crime these defendants are guilty of is their political affiliation. This show trial reminds the Cambodian people of the Khmer Rouge trials in which the verdict was set , not by the judges but by the regime.

We are innocent until proven guilty. Returning home is our constitutional right. It would be naive to ask for a fair trial but it is our right to be given the full right to defend ourselves in a court of justice.

Mu Sochua
Vice- President of the Cambodia National Rescue Party

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