The Phnom Penh Municipal Court began hearing the case of Sam Rainsy, former president of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and 21 alleged accomplices on charges of treason, incitement to cause social chaos and incitement of the military to engage in rebellion.
The hearing was held on December 29 under tight security conditions both inside the courtroom and outside the municipal court building.
Thirteen of the 22 defendants attended the hearing, while nine others remained at large after fleeing Cambodia to take up residence in various countries abroad.
The 22 include Rainsy, who was defended in court by lawyers Sam Sokong and Lor Chunthy, along with lawyers Sin Savorn and Yong Phanit who had been assigned by the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia to defend him.
The day’s proceedings, overseen by Presiding Judge Ros Piseth, began with the questioning of one of the defendants in the case, Long Phary, 58, and a former councillor for the CNRP in Prey Veng province’s Kampong Trabek district, by prosecutors Seng Heang and Sam Rithy Veasna.
He told the judge that he had been acquainted with Rainsy and his wife Tioulong Saumura, but that he had only heard the names of other senior party officials and had never met them personally.
He admitted that prior to the CNRP dissolution, he was in regular contact with Heng Danaro, the party’s parliamentarian for Prey Veng at that time.
Long Phary went on to say that after the party was dissolved by the Supreme Court he had no more contacts with anyone from the CNRP and that he had been working as a moto-taxi driver in Phnom Penh when the police arrested him at a coffee shop earlier this year.
“I was just sitting there drinking coffee and I was chatting about the Westerdam cruise ship docking in Preah Sihanouk province because it had people infected with Covid-19 aboard it but Prime Minister Hun Sen still allowed the ship to dock. Aside from that, I had already stopped talking about party matters and politics. I don’t understand what I’m supposed to be guilty of now,” he stated to the court.
Phary told the judge that he had a Facebook account, but he never “friended” any of the former leaders of the CNRP.
He recounted to the court that he first heard about the establishment of the National Salvation Movement in the US on January 28, 2018, from a programme on VOA Radio, but he had never joined the movement.
He also said that around the time of November 19, 2019, when Rainsy had claimed he would return to Cambodia, there was a former CNRP official in Prey Veng who attempted to get him to gather people together to go and meet Rainsy when he arrived, but that he had flatly refused to do so.
The next defendant to give testimony was Ngin Kheang, 32. He told the court that he was arrested in Phnom Penh on March 17, this year. Prior to his arrest, he claimed his only recent activity that could be construed as political was a mass message he had sent regarding Covid-19 to a group of his friends, but he had had no recent contacts with any former CNRP members.
He did admit, however, that he had been involved with the party back in 2013 and had participated in one of their parades, but he said he was never an actual member or committed to its agenda, nor did he bear any love for them now given his present circumstances.
“I said some things about Covid-19 in a Facebook messenger group. I said the Cambodian government had [wrongly] allowed a plane into Cambodia and I criticised Cambodia’s Ministry of Health,” he said.
After Judge Piseth had finished questioning Kheang, he announced that the hearing would adjourn and he scheduled its resumption for January 22, 2021.
After attending the hearing, the head of human rights organisation Adhoc, Ny Sokha, gave an interview to reporters outside the courtroom, saying that, apparently, the individuals questioned had no further involvement with the CNRP after the Supreme Court had dissolved it and they seemed to have moved on with their lives, unlike some other former party activists.
“I think that these arrests are politically motivated,” he said.
Sokha added that he thought it would be more productive to question party leaders rather than lower level party activists. When party leaders were present to provide answers the debate was much clearer whereas most activists didn’t know the full details about the activities of the party.
“If they want to bring clarity to this discussion, I think that they need the actual party leaders who were charged to testify in court,” he said.