At Closing of CNRP Leaders’ Trial, Defense Lawyers at Odds

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Several senior CNRP leaders including Sam Rainsy, center-left, and Mu Sochua, center-right, in an undated photo posted to Rainsy’s Facebook page in early 2019.

Defense lawyers for nine senior opposition leaders gave conflicting closing statements on Tuesday, with a Bar Association-appointed lawyer requesting a minimum sentence — due to defendants’ age and inability to carry out their plans — as if they had pleaded guilty.

Nine CNRP leaders living in exile abroad, including party co-founder Sam Rainsy, 70, and vice presidents Eng Chhai Eang, 53, and Mu Sochua, 65, are on trial for an alleged attack against the government and face prison sentences of 15 to 30 years.

A “surprised” Sochua told VOD that the opposition defendants did not recognize the assigned defense lawyers. 

“We have never seen any lawyer ask the court to charge and sentence its own client,” Sochua said. “It is a big issue and it is unacceptable. This bar association is not an independent bar association.” 

Previous hearings saw the prosecution present evidence of an alleged attempted coup, including comments made by some of the leaders at a meeting in Lowell, Massachusetts in 2019 during which they spoke of preparing funds to support any defecting soldiers.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court saw a final video clip and comments from Rainsy’s Facebook page from September and November 2019 before Presiding Judge Duch Sok Sarin finished the questioning and moved to the trial’s closing statements.

Suong Chanthan, representing the government, said the meeting, the plan for Rainsy’s return to Cambodia and the funds for soldiers was an attempt to incite people and topple Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.

“They appealed to people both inside and outside the country to fight against the government,” Chanthan said, asking for strict punishment and damages of 200 million riel, or about $50,000, from each defendant.

Another government lawyer, Koun Saroeun, said the evidence showed the CNRP leaders asking soldiers and members of the public to stand up against the government.

“If the Cambodian government and competent authorities had failed to crack down in time, and if the armed forces had been short-sighted and followed this incitement, how would our society be? There would be chaos in society,” Saroeun said.

Deputy prosecutor Seng Heang said the CNRP leaders’ activities went beyond democratic opposition — they were not contesting an election but advocating force and violence. Heang asked for further arrest orders to be issued against the leaders.

In recent months, the CNRP leaders have appealed to the government to be allowed back in the country to oppose the court cases against them, but have been denied visas.

The CNRP, the ruling CPP’s only viable challenger, was dissolved by the Supreme Court in 2017 after it made significant gains in local-level commune elections that year. The following year, the CPP won every seat in the National Assembly in a national election.

Defense lawyer Sam Sokong, who has represented CNRP members in a slew of court cases against them, argued that the leaders should be cleared of the charges against them.

Their appeals were commonplace political messaging, he said.

“Their aim was to come back and bring change through elections,” Sokong said.

He also argued that the charge of attack was inappropriate because no actual violent attack had transpired. The government’s “preventative measures” were also an overreaction, he said.

More than 100 CNRP supporters were charged with incitement or plotting in the lead-up to Rainsy’s failed attempt to return to the country in November 2019.

Sokong added later that it was normal for opposition politicians to oppose the government. “Generally, the opposition’s claims never go along with [the government] in democratic countries,” he said.

However, his co-defense lawyer Kao Seyha, assigned by the Bar Association to help the defense, did not ask for his clients to be cleared.

Seyha asked the judges to hand down minimum sentences, arguing the CNRP leaders’ words had come from a place of anger because their party was dissolved and they could not contest the 2018 national election.

“Because my clients did not succeed … due to their old age, judges, please sentence them to the minimum,” he said.

Seyha added that no one was interested in the CNRP leaders’ appeal, since soldiers and members of the public were enjoying improving living conditions. They may have collected money for soldiers, but the opposition never sent it to them, he said.

Seyha also argued in support of the attack charge, noting that under the Criminal Code felony attempts are treated the same as if they had been carried out.

Later, Seyha again stood up to argue that the CNRP leaders’ plan had been prevented only because of government action.

Talking to reporters outside the court, Seyha said he had argued based on the evidence and witnesses.

“I made my conclusions based on my understanding,” he said. “There was no pressure. It was based on my legal [analysis] of the case file.”

In a phone message on Tuesday, CNRP vice president Sochua, said the party leaders on trial have never accepted the assigned lawyers from the Bar Association, and that providing them was against both fair trial principles and the opposition defendants’ will.

Sokong was the only lawyer they recognized, she said. Appointed lawyer Seyha had never contacted the defendants and he had no right to represent them in court, she added. 

Exiled CNRP leaders had previously sent letters to the court and asked judges to allow them to return to Cambodia in order to challenge the charge in person, but the court — which she said was not independent — did not give them this right, and the trial moved forward, Sochua said.

“I want to go back to Cambodia to answer these charges,” she said.

Sokong, the other lawyer, added that the defense should be defending their clients.

“I don’t think [Seyha] had contact with the clients, and did not discuss with the clients about what the clients wanted. He just made a conclusion based on his understanding,” Sokong said. “I think it is a little bit against professionalism.”

Verdicts are set to be announced on February 23.

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