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Cambodia blocks exiled dissidents from returning

Airlines refuse to let CNRP members board flights to face mass treason and incitement trial

Cambodia blocks exiled dissidents from returning

Prum Chantha (left), wife of jailed CNRP activist Kak Komphear, cries as she holds a photograph of her husband in front of Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Jan. 14 during a mass trial against more than 100 opposition members and activists charged with conspiracy to commit treason. (Photo: AFP)

Plans by exiled Cambodian dissidents to return home and face a mass treason trial were thwarted over the weekend after airlines refused to let them board without travel visas.

Among them was Mu Sochua, deputy president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), who was denied access to a flight in Los Angeles.

She “was not allowed to board a Singapore Airlines flight to Cambodia via Singapore because she doesn't have a visa to enter,” CNRP leader-in-exile Sam Rainsy posted on his Twitter account.

He also said Men Sothavarin, a member of the CNRP permanent committee, was also denied access to a flight, adding that a Singapore Airlines manager at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris had apologized and said access to Cambodia from transit countries had also been denied.

CNRP leaders have had their Cambodian passports revoked and are traveling on foreign passports which require visas.

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Mu Sochua and Sam Rainsy had promised to return with other CNRP officials as more than 100 of their supporters went on trial in Phnom Penh for an alleged attempt to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen. If found guilty, they face up to 12 years behind bars.

The latest arrests followed a failed bid by Sam Rainsy to return in late 2019, lead a popular uprising across the country and unseat Hun Sen, who won all 125 seats in the National Assembly contested at elections in 2018.

That victory was assured after the courts dissolved the CNRP in the wake of violent protests following Commune Councillor Elections in 2017 that Sam Rainsy claims were rigged.

Several trials relating to treason and incitement charges are underway in Phnom Penh amid tight security. Some of the accused have been held in pre-trial detention since last May while those living in exile, including a retired Australian politician, are being tried in absentia.

“It is a sham trial because the decision makers are not judges based on legal considerations, but politicians based on political grounds,” Theary Seng, a prominent pro-democracy activist, said before her case was heard. “This legal persecution of me and the others is an attempt to silence us.” 

Most of the hearings have been bogged down in procedural issues and long-term observers said they expect the trials to drag well into the year and perhaps longer. International human rights groups say the trials are politically motivated.

Outside the courts friends and relatives have lent support. Some claimed they had been heavily monitored by the authorities and in some cases beaten.

Thun Chantha, a former CNRP politician, told Radio Free Asia that he was ambushed by people he did not know who cornered him on two motorcycles and beat him with a stick on his head and legs before escaping.

“I can barely walk because my knee is swollen. My whole body hurts,” he said, adding that he was speechless about the attack because he had only monitored the trial.

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