American-Khmer pro-democracy activist Theary Seng, who has edited the Khmer version of the Bible, is among those charged with treason in a mass trial in Phnom Penh. (Photo: YouTube)
The mass treason trial of senior leaders of the banned Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) is continuing amid claims the courts were working off a “presumption of guilt” as the government takes aim at activists abroad for a “distortion of the facts.”
An official communique released over the weekend by the Foreign Ministry accused Ek Sawathey, a Sydney, Australia-based lawyer and spokesperson for the Cambodian Acton Group, of attempting to damage Cambodia's rice exports by linking them to human rights violations.
“The ministry condemns all unscrupulous people who attempt to harm the interests of Cambodian farmers through iniquitous actions and a distortion of facts,” it said.
In a letter to members of parliament, Ek Sawathey called for an inquiry into tax concessions and benefits enjoyed by Cambodian rice-exporting companies including “the human rights abuses linked to rice imports into Australia.”
He also asked that Covid-19 packages provided to Cambodia be revoked and demanded the “Hun Sen regime focus on getting the virus under control instead of spending time targeting innocent victims such as myself in Australia.”
“It’s a thuggish regime with no regard to the national interest as they target me whilst Cambodia is in this pandemic,” he said, adding that Australia should revoke its Covid-19 aid for Cambodia.
A report tabled in parliament in December recommended Australia adopt Magnitsky-style legislation which the US government has used to pursue serious human rights violators.
The United States has imposed trade sanctions on individuals, including generals, under its Magnitsky Act for human rights violations, and for the same reasons the European Union has withdrawn some trade perks under its Everything But Arms policy.
Cambodian exports have benefited from Australian aid programs over many years. It exported 25,994 tonnes of milled rice to Australia in the first 10 months of 2020, a 53 percent increase on the same period a year earlier.
The Magnitsky Act was named after Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian lawyer found beaten to death while in police custody after calling out massive fraud. It is being pushed in Australia, where activists opposed to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen have been singled out by authorities in Phnom Penh.
They include native Khmer and retired Victorian state politician Hong Lim, who is on trial in Cambodia in absentia along with acting CNRP chief Sam Rainsy, his wife Tioulong Saumura, deputy president Eng Chhai Eang, former lawmaker Mu Sochua and other party officials.
They have been accused of conspiracy, incitement to commit a felony or to disturb social security and inciting military personnel to disobedience after Sam Rainsy promised to return from exile in France, lead a popular uprising and unseat Hun Sen in November 2019.
Most have lived in exile since the government crackdown on dissent in the lead-up to elections in 2018 when the CNRP’s dissolution enabled the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win every seat in the National Assembly.
Despite warrants issued for their arrests, their attempts to return from exile to Cambodia and front the tribunal last week were thwarted after the government refused them visas and airlines declined to let them board.
On Jan. 22, some 12 defendants attended hearings at Phnom Penh Municipal Court, while more than 20 family members were prevented from entering the courthouse by authorities who warned them with megaphones that they would be detained if they did not leave.
“The prosecutors’ and judges’ questions were biased and presumed the guilt of the defendants,” defense lawyer Sam Sokong told RFA's Khmer Service.
“The questions focused on people gathering to receive Sam Rainsy on November 9, 2019, as well as what they said were other ‘orders’ [from the CNRP abroad], but [the defendants] denied that they had accepted orders from anyone.”
He said most of his clients had maintained their innocence of the charges against them but some declined to answer questions, citing health problems including dementia.
“They are just former activists and supporters of the CNRP,” he said. “They have no plans to overthrow the government.”
The charges carry prison terms of up to 12 years.
“Since late last year, the Cambodian government has embarked on an endless series of mass political show trials against political opposition figures and rights activists,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
“The purpose is clear: to smash to pieces what’s left of the opposition CNRP in the country and silence all remaining critics still brave enough to raise their voice against the CPP’s single-party dictatorship.”
Court hearings are expected to resume in Phnom Penh on Feb. 4.