Government spokesperson Phay Siphan said the concerns raised by three foreign embassies and an official from the European Union’s European External Action Service (EEAS) concerning the sentences given to former opposition party leaders was “interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs”.
In a sentencing hearing held on March 1, a Phnom Penh municipal court judge sentenced former opposition leader Sam Rainsy in absentia to 25 years in prison for the crime of “Attack” as defined under Article 451 of the Criminal Code.
Article 451 states that the crime of attack “consists of the commission of one or more acts of violence liable to endanger the institutions of the Kingdom of Cambodia or violate the integrity of the national territory,” and that “it shall be punishable by imprisonment from fifteen to thirty years.”
Eight other former opposition members named as Rainsy’s accomplices to the crime were each handed prison sentences between 20-22 years in duration, though none of them are presently in Cambodia.
The judge then declared that all of the defendants had been deprived of their citizenship rights definitively, disenfranchised for purposes of voting or standing for office in elections and disqualified from working in the government’s civil service framework as officials.
After the judge pronounced the verdict, the embassies of the US, UK and Australia along with an EU official all issued statements expressing their concerns over the verdict.
“We are concerned by the verdicts and lengthy sentences of opposition members held in absentia. The right to a fair trial is a fundamental freedom guaranteed in the Cambodian constitution. We urge authorities to respect the rule of law and to ensure that fundamental freedoms are respected,” the UK embassy’s statement said.
During a bilateral defence cooperation discussion with Minister of Defence Tea Banh on March 2, Australian ambassador to Cambodia Pablo Kang also raised some concerns and said the trial of the opposition members and activists included Australian nationals.
“We urge the Cambodian Government to apply transparency and due process in all trials, and to take steps to rebuild relations with opposition members and with civil society,” the Australian embassy stated.
The US ambassador Patrick Murphy said he was troubled by sentences targeting political opposition leaders, particularly given – what he referred to – as a lack of due process. He urged authorities to reopen Cambodia’s political space and allow all voices to be heard and to participate.
Likewise, the EEAS’s spokespersons said the verdict was pronounced after swift trials conducted in absentia. They further stated that the accused were not allowed to return to the country and defend their actions in court, which is a violation of their due process rights according to the EU.
In 2019, Sam Rainsy had publicly planned his return to Cambodia on November 9 claiming that when he returned it would be to facilitate the arrest of Prime Minster Hun Sen. That same year he publicly urged the armed forces to disobey their orders and overthrow their government.
The government in question – still in power today – regarded this as an attempt to foment a military coup and it led to Rainsy’s 25-year-sentence.
The government spokesperson Phay Siphan said Cambodia had sovereign jurisdiction over its own territory and courts. He condemned all attempts to interfere with its judicial processes by outside parties.
“The embassies are just the representatives for the interests of their own particular nations in Cambodia. They are not permitted to provide support to groups of insurgent rebels. This is absolutely unacceptable and illegal interference in Cambodia’s internal affairs. A coup to depose our elected prime minister is just not acceptable,” Siphan said.