Thirty-six opposition party leaders and activists were convicted of conspiracy in Cambodia for allegedly supporting attempts by members of the opposition movement in exile to return to the country.
In the latest mass lawsuit against opponents of authoritarian Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, opposition leader Sam Rainsy and several former high-ranking officials from his party as well as supporters of the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) were found guilty in Phnom Penh City Court on Thursday, local human rights group Licadho said.
At least 33 of the convicts, including many who lived in exile after fleeing abroad, were tried in absentia and arrest warrants were issued. A single defendant was acquitted.
“The political activists were sentenced based on their Facebook posts and recorded private phone calls,” Licadho said in a statement.
The conspiracy allegations relate to alleged efforts by the defendants to help opposition leaders, including Deputy CNRP Leader Mu Sochua, return to Cambodia in 2021 to appear as a defendant in an earlier mass lawsuit.
According to Licadho, Mu Sochua was unable to return from exile after the government canceled her Cambodian passport and refused to issue an entry visa.
According to Licadho, Thursday’s prison terms ranged from five to seven years and were the latest mass lawsuit against dozens of opposition members and supporters in Cambodia.
The “court verdict is the fourth verdict in five mass lawsuits brought against a total of 158 leaders and supporters of the former CNRP since November 2020,” Licadho said, adding that “many of the former activists were defendants in several lawsuits.”
Human rights activists have condemned what they describe as a weapon in the country’s judicial system by the ruling party.
The CNRP, which has since been banned and disbanded, was the only legitimate opposition party that seriously challenged Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party and should once again perform strongly in the 2018 national elections.
Following the opposition’s solid results in the 2017 local elections, the government initiated a crackdown, which saw independent media organizations shut down, journalists arrested and finally banned the opposition party and its members from office.
Cambodia, which has been run as a one-party state since 2018, has been ruled by Hun Sen since 1985, making him one of the world’s longest-surviving leaders.