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Cambodia Opposition Leaders Receive 'Outrageously Harsh' Jail Terms for Alleged Coup Plot

Cambodian police officers stand guard in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court during a hearing of Kem Sokha, the head of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 16, 2020.
Cambodian police officers stand guard in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court during a hearing of Kem Sokha, the head of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Jan. 16, 2020.

A Phnom Penh court has sentenced nine senior leaders of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party to 20-plus years in prison for allegedly plotting a coup in 2019.

The sentence, delivered Monday, means they are effectively banned from ever returning home.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court delivered its verdict in the so-called “attack” case in a hearing that was not attended by defense lawyers. Y Rin, a court spokesperson, said government lawyers were present when Judge Duch Soksarin delivered the verdict.

Those sentenced are former party president Sam Rainsy, his deputies Mu Sochua and Eng Chhai Eang, and senior party members Tioulong Saumura, Nut Romduol, Ho Vann, Ou Chanrith, Long Ry and Men Sothavarin.

Sam Rainsy was sentenced to 25 years in prison and the eight others received sentences of 20 to 22 years, according to Y Rin. The court added additional penalties that bar them from voting, running for election or holding any public positions.

"This verdict was delivered before lawyers representing the Royal Government and it was considered to be in [the presence] of the nine accused,” Y Rin wrote in a Telegram message.

Sam Rainsy, who lives in exile in France, said of the verdict that “I don’t care at all because Cambodia’s courts are a joke. We call it the puppet court serving Mr. Hun Sen.” Prime Minister Hun Sen, with his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has held power in Cambodia in various coalitions since 1985.

Reaction to the sentencing was swift.

“A prison sentence from a court which is controlled by the government cannot be taken seriously,” Rainsy said in a statement posted on his social media page.

Human Rights Watch said the verdict was an “outrageously harsh prison sentence” and intended to block the nine CNRP leaders from ever returning to Cambodia.

“But even with the cases being heard by a kangaroo court, PM Hun Sen didn’t dare allow even a minimally fair proceeding, barring Mu Sochua and the other defendants from returning to the country to have their day in court,” said Phil Robertson, the group’s deputy Asia director.

“Once again, Cambodia’s politically controlled judiciary make a mockery of justice rather than defending it,” Robertson said, adding that the case against Sam Rainsy was based on “bogus, politically motivated allegations manufactured by a dictatorial, single-party state.”

Ministry of Justice spokesperson Chin Malin defended the Phnom Penh Municipal Court's decision, adding that the CNRP leaders could appeal the lower court’s verdict.

“The courts in a sovereign state make decisions based on the facts and the law," he said. "And if perpetrators or their fellow [defendants] are not satisfied, then they can use their legal rights to appeal.”

The case relates to Sam Rainsy’s attempt to return to Cambodia in November 2019. The former CNRP president had remained overseas after an arrest warrant was issued for him in 2015 in a defamation case. Other senior leaders fled the country after then-party president Kem Sokha was arrested in 2017 and the party dissolved months later.

Dissolving the party, which had been gaining popularity in local elections, guaranteed that Hun Sen’s CPP would sweep the 2018 general election. It won all the seats in Parliament, in what international groups that spent billions of dollars funding pro-democracy civil society efforts condemned as the most unfair and unfree since the United Nations organized the first post-genocide election in 1993.

Sam Rainsy was prevented from entering Cambodia in 2019 after the government issued travel bans and warned neighboring countries and airlines from allowing him to board Phnom Penh-bound flights.

During the trial, which started in November 2020, the government characterized Sam Rainsy’s efforts to return to Cambodia as an attempted coup, pointing to plans to gather party supporters and organize other repatriations.

Over 130 other CNRP members and supporters are currently before the Phnom Penh court for allegedly supporting the return plan. The nine leaders are co-defendants in two of these cases.

Mu Sochua, one of the nine leaders, said the ruling was a blow to Cambodian democracy and was in line with Hun Sen’s political needs.

“This conviction meets the desires of Mr. Hun Sen,” she said on Monday. “It’s not a typical court in a country where there is an impartial and independent judiciary.”

Sochua said the court proceeded to try the nine leaders in absentia, despite their willingness to return to Cambodia for the trial and robbing them of their fair trial rights.

This story originated in VOA's Khmer Service.