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Cambodian mass trial against government opponents reopens

Cambodian mass trial against government opponents reopens

Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer dressed in a traditional Khmer Apsara dance costume, holds lotus flowers as she speaks with media in front of the municipal court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Dec 7, 2021. (Photo: AP/Heng Sinith)

PHNOM PENH: A mass trial of critics and opponents of Cambodia’s government charged with treason for their non-violent political activities resumed on Tuesday (Dec 7), amid an ongoing crackdown on dissent.

Only six of 44 defendants summoned by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court turned up at Tuesday’s trial session, said defence lawyer Sam Sokong. The trial had been suspended for more than a year due to coronavirus restrictions.

In Phnom Penh, a Cambodian-American lawyer, Theary Seng — who lives on the outskirts of the capital city and is one of the most outspoken critics of Prime Minister Hun Sen — was among the defendants attending the reopened trial.

Theary Seng arrived wearing the costume of a Cambodian classical Apsara dancer. Her hands held out lotus flowers as she walked slowly and quietly in front of the courthouse as a throng of journalists took her picture.

She said she wore the outfit to make the point that she would not bow down to oppression.

“This is political theatre and unlike the other actors I have my own role, I write my own role," Theary Seng told reporters.

She said her outfit cast herself as a “wounded Apsara” dancer that could represent "the Cambodian population suffering under this autocratic regime”.

Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer dressed in a traditional Apsara dance costume, holds lotus flowers as she with media in front of the municipal court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Dec 7, 2021. (Photo: AP/Heng Sinith)

Theary Seng has said she has no political party affiliation, but most of those summoned are supporters of the disbanded Cambodia National Rescue Party. The party’s self-exiled head and co-founder, Sam Rainsy, was one of the no-shows at the resumed trial, while other absentees lived in the remote countryside and were unaware of the court date, lawyer Sam Sokong said.

Almost all of the defendants have been charged with conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony, which together carry a maximum penalty of 12 years in prison, according to defence lawyers and human rights activists. Most of the defendants are accused of being involved with organising a failed trip home from exile by former opposition leader Sam Rainsy that authorities blocked in November 2019.

The trial, which had been suspended since November 2020, is just a small part of a crackdown that began in 2017 when the country’s high court ordered the Cambodia National Rescue Party dissolved. It is widely believed the action was taken to help ensure that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party would win the 2018 general election. It ended up sweeping all the National Assembly seats, but the government has kept a tight leash on all political activity, though it recently released some political and social activists from detention.

Hun Sen has been in power for 36 years and says he intends to stay in office until 2028. Last week, he endorsed one of his sons to be his successor.

Jared Genser, an American human rights lawyer who was a classmate of Theary Seng at the University of Michigan Law School, traveled to Cambodia to offer his support to his friend.

“This doesn’t demonstrate strength on the part of Prime Minister Hun Sen, it demonstrates weakness," Genser said, referring to the charges facing Theary Seng and others.

He called on Cambodian authorities to end all mass trials targeting critics and opponents of the government.

In Tuesday's court session in Cambodia, the judge questioned the defendants about any role they might have played in Rainsy’s planned return, according to defense lawyer Sokong. He said they testified that they were ordinary party members and had no knowledge of the party leadership’s plans.

The judge announced that the trial would be finished in early February next year with the verdict to be announced on Feb 8, if the hearings proceed according to plan, lawyer Sokong added.

Source: AP/jt

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