PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A Cambodian-American lawyer and dozens of members of a now-disbanded opposition party were convicted Tuesday of treason in a trial that was the latest step to tame all opposition to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s long-running rule.
Attorney Theary Seng and most of the other defendants had been charged over a failed attempt by the leader of Cambodia’s defunct National Rescue Party to return from exile in 2019. Cambodian authorities blocked Sam Rainsy’s return, claiming the 60 defendants were involved in organizing his trip, which Theary Seng and the others have denied.
It is widely believed that Cambodian courts are under the influence of Hun Sen, whose authoritarian style of government has kept him in power for 37 years. The Cambodian National Rescue Party was its party’s main rival before it was dissolved by a court ruling just before the 2018 national elections, resulting in a clean slate by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party.
Phnom Penh Municipal Court has found Theary Seng and most of the others guilty of conspiracy to commit treason, lawyer Choung Chou Ngy said. Theary Seng was sentenced to six years in prison, the others received sentences of five to eight years.
Many of the 60 defendants previously fled exile or went into hiding, and it was not immediately clear how many appeared in court on Tuesday.
Theary Seng was out of court when the verdict was announced, saying she wanted her arrest to be public and “not in the shadows.” Media saw at least three police officers approaching Theary Seng, holding her hand and body, and pushing her into a waiting police car shortly after the verdict was handed down.
She was dressed as Lady Liberty, in a light green dress and a crown with “Freedom” written on it, and from time to time she would raise her imitation torch and shout “Free the political prisoners.” She has worn themed costumes during her court hearings to publicize her belief that Cambodia is not a democratic nation and that the process is unfair.
She told reporters she was ready for a “appearance” plea of guilty.
“I am ready and willing to go to the infamous Cambodian prison for my political views, for my faith, for my faith in democracy, for my faith in freedom,” she said. “I am willing to pay the price of prison so that I can live my conscience and my faith in freedom and justice.”
Choung Chou Ngy, who represents Theary Seng but not the other defendants, said he plans to appeal. He said the sentences of the suspects who were given a five-year term had been suspended. But those with sentences of six to eight years were sentenced to jail, and the judge ordered the police to find those convicted in absentia so they could face trial.
The dissolution of the Cambodian National Rescue Party, its removal from the ballot and the government’s crackdown on media and independence votes paved the way for Hun Sen’s party to win the 2018 elections and win every seat in the National Assembly to claim. He has repeatedly stated his intention to remain in office until 2028 and has supported one of his sons to succeed him.
Sam Rainsy, Hun Sen’s main political nemesis, has been in exile since 2016 to avoid serving prison terms on defamation and other charges he believes are politically motivated.
The trial of Theary Seng and her co-defendants began in 2020 but was suspended until December 2021 due to the coronavirus restrictions. Initially, nearly 130 suspects were named and the proceedings were split into three processes for manageability.
In a related case in March, the court convicted 21 people of treason and related charges for their nonviolent political opposition to the Cambodian government. Seven exiled Cambodian National Rescue Party leaders, including Sam Rainsy, were sentenced to 10 years in prison in absentia. Another 13 defendants were regular party supporters who the court ordered to serve more than three years.