The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on November 26 commenced a mass trial against 139 activists and supporters of the former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), who were charged with ‘plotting’ and ‘incitement’, but postponed the hearing after splitting the cases in two.
Municipal court spokesman Kuch Kimlong said only 34 had shown up in the first hearing. The trial will resume in January and March.
UN human rights experts, meanwhile, have expressed concerns about what they called an “imminent mass trial”.
Sam Sokong, the defence lawyer for many of the defendants, welcomed the court’s decision, saying he needed more time to study the cases as they involved so many people.
Another defence lawyer, Lor Chunthy, requested the court to enable prior consultation between lawyers and the defendants to explain legal procedures. He also requested meetings between the judges and lawyers to ensure a smooth trial.
Judge Ross Piseth said the hearing will resume on January 14 and March 4. The postponement, he said, was to allow all the defendants to hire a lawyer.
He said all defendants should be able to find a lawyer within two weeks, but if they could not find one, the Bar Association of the Kingdom of Cambodia (BAKC) had appointed six lawyers to help them.
“Although they are lawyers appointed by BAKC, they are lawyers by profession and they adhere to the ethics of legal professionalism. They value their reputations, so they perform their duties correctly,” Judge Piseth said.
The cases are linked to the remarks of former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, who on November 9 claimed he would return to arrest Prime Minister Hun Sen. The government accused Rainsy of a “failed coup” although he never came back to the Kingdom.
Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer and one of the defendants, said outside the court after the hearing that she did not need a lawyer and preferred to defend the case by herself.
Seng, who was formerly the director of local rights NGOs, said she should have received details of the charges brought against her, along with a summons to appear in court. She said she did not know the foundation of the charges against her.
“I don’t have a document detailing the investigation carried out by the investigating judge. So, I should not have come to the court. I come although this is just a political stage. The charge has no factual or legal basis,” she said.
“I don’t know what I have done wrong because the court did not give me documents describing my wrongdoing. This is totally against procedure. But I will play along in this political event. I will open the curtain to make sure it is seen clearly,” she added.
Thach Setha, president of the Khmer Kampuchea Krom Association and also a defendant, said outside the court that he did not know why he was charged. A wrong name and wrong date of birth were written on a summons that was posted on a wall at the former CNRP headquarters, he said.
“But for the sake of the nation, I still come even though my name was wrong. The court never summoned me for questioning. The court should not be so careless,” Setha said.
Rhona Smith, the Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Cambodia, issued a statement on November 25 expressing concerns about an “imminent mass trial” of individuals associated with the Supreme Court-dissolved CNRP.
“The mass trials of CNRP activists appear to be politically motivated, lacking clear legal grounds and constitute a serious violation of the due process rights, firmly established by international human rights law,” said Smith, adding that the judicial proceedings appeared to be part of a strategy to intimidate and discredit opponents of the government.
She said that civic and democratic space in Cambodia had continued to shrink and there was little evidence of political rapprochement and reconciliation. Since June 2019, over 150 people associated with the CNRP have been arrested on various charges, she said.
Ministry of Justice spokesperson Chin Malin rejected the claims, saying Smith had repeatedly raised the issue and made unwarranted remarks about the actions of the Cambodian authorities. Malin said the authorities had strong factual and legal basis to charge the accused, including testimony and extensive evidence.
He said it was normal for a case to have so many defendants when a crime was carried out by a network of people, like the mafia. In such cases, he said, all those involved must be held accountable and all the accused should take part in the court proceedings.
“They should attend the hearing to defend themselves according to legal procedure, rather than escaping and gathering to hold protests and accuse the authorities without basis,” Malin said.
“Running away is not the way to clear themselves of the charges.”