Cambodia convicts opposition figures in mass trial

A Phnom Penh court convicted around 60 opposition figures including an outspoken US-Cambodian activist in a mass trial Tuesday as long-serving leader Hun Sen cracks down on dissent ahead of national elections next year.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who has lived in France since 2016 to avoid jail for convictions he says are politically motivated, had another eight years added to his existing sentence.

Outside court, US-Cambodian lawyer and campaigner Theary Seng (picture) — dressed as the Statue of Liberty — was abruptly dragged into a car by police after receiving a six-year jail term for treason.

“I am ready for a guilty verdict because this regime will not let me go free,” Theary Seng said before her conviction.

“It will be an unfair and unjust verdict because I am innocent, the others charged with me are innocent,” the 51-year-old added.

Patrick Murphy, the US Ambassador to Cambodia, tweeted he was “deeply troubled” by the verdict against Seng Theary.

“Freedom of expression and association, and tolerance of dissenting views, are vital components of democracy,” the ambassador said, calling for her release.

Living in a dictatorship

Theary Seng is among scores caught up in a push to detain and arrest former members of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), human rights defenders, and any dissenting voices to the administration.

The case is linked to Sam Rainsy’s failed attempt to return to Cambodia in 2019 — moves characterised by the government as an aborted bid to overthrow Hun Sen.

The charges faced by those convicted on Tuesday ranged from treason to incitement and conspiracy.

Several defendants have already been jailed, while many remain at large or have fled Cambodia.

“The mass trials against political opposition members are really about preventing any electoral challenge to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s rule, but they have also come to symbolise the death of Cambodia’s democracy,” Human Rights Watch spokesman Phil Robertson said.

“By creating a political dynamic that relies on intimidation and persecution of government critics, Hun Sen demonstrates his total disregard for democratic rights.”

The prime minister is one of the world’s longest-serving leaders, having been in power for 37 years, and is reportedly grooming his eldest son to take the reins.

Theary Seng was charged by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony.

“We are living in a dictatorship,” she said, claiming Hun Sen’s government “uses the law as a weapon against its own people”.

She added that “this regime is imprisoning liberty and freedom”.

Ahead of a recent local poll, the United Nations Human Rights Office said it was disturbed by reports of opposition obstruction in a “paralysing political environment”.

Hun Sen’s political party later announced a landslide win. — AFP