CNRP Mass Trials Schedule Weeks of Hearings, Potential Verdict Date, as Focus Remains on Rainsy, CNRM

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Seng Chantheary tries to give a flower to an officer outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on December 7, 2021. (Ananth Baliga/VOD)

More than 40 defendants linked to the dissolved CNRP were on trial Tuesday morning for incitement and conspiracy, as part of mass trials against members of the opposition that were suspended early this year. 

The Phnom Penh courts are processing three cases against more than 140 CNRP members and activists, with a fourth case against nine senior party leaders for an attack against the state already having reached a verdict with sentences between 20 and 25 years in prison.

The court on Tuesday heard testimony from one case relating to the failed return attempt of former CNRP president Sam Rainsy in 2019. While VOD records show 60 defendants in the case based on court documents, defense lawyer Sam Sokong said 44 were summoned, while recent court documents say 42 people were called to appear before court.

At the start of the hearing, Sokong pointed out that many of his clients had not received court summons for the trial, to which deputy prosecutor Seng Heang replied that the trial was ongoing and people should have heard on the radio or read on Facebook about the hearing. Sokong said summons were posted on the former CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh, which will be auctioned soon to repay fines owed by property owner Rainsy. Heang rejected the claim.

Heang had his own objection to the attire worn by Seng Chantheary, a Cambodian and American citizen who is a defendant in the case. The former NGO worker, who expresses support for the CNRP, was dressed as an apsara, a mythical spirit in Buddhist and Hindu culture.

“Your traditional costume is really nice but in this time and this circumstance, you should not have dressed like this. You should dress like others,” Heang said.

Speaking outside the court before the trial, Chantheary called the proceedings political theater, and that she had written her own script as a wounded apsara.

“I am a wounded apsara representing all the Cambodian women suffering under this autocratic regime,” she said. “This is an illegal drama scripted by the politicians. The actors are the judges, prosecutors, court-appointed lawyers.”

Back in the court, judge Ros Piseth laid out a schedule of hearings for the incitement and conspiracy case. The court will be in session on December 7, 14, 21 and 28, and January 1 and 6, with a verdict expected on February 8.

The court will hear another case on Thursday, which is linked to incitement of the military and the formation of the Cambodia National Rescue Movement following the dissolution of the party. This case will have hearings on December 9, 16, 23, and January 13, with a verdict expected on January 27. The court has given no indication of when a fourth trial, involving 78 defendants on the same conspiracy and incitement charges, will resume.

There were only six defendants present at Tuesday’s hearing: three who are incarcerated on separate charges — Kak Komphear, Heng Chansothy and Tum Bunthorn — and three others, Phuong Tha, Leng Senghong and Chantheary.

Of the 11 people expected to be questioned on Tuesday, only two were interrogated — Bunthorn and Tha.

Bunthorn said he had joined opposition politics 20 years ago and was part of a Phnom Penh support team. He said he had contact with former CNRP members prior to his jailing, but only to talk about mundane issues like their well-being. He didn’t share anything on Facebook, he added.

“I have no connection with any of them,” he told judge Piseth, when asked if he had been in contact with the party’s senior leaders.

After questions relating to Rainsy’s planned return and the CNRM, a deputy prosecutor asked if Bunthorn had seen protests in Hong Kong or if he had participated in a conference on how to hold a revolution. Bunthorn said no to the first and did not answer the second question.

After a small recess, Bunthorn informed the court that he would not answer any more questions, with consequent questioning by the judge and prosecution going unanswered.

Tha said he was an ordinary activist and told the court that he had read news about the CNRP’s dissolution and the formation of the CNRM. He had not been politically active after he returned from South Korea in 2019, where he was the head of a youth group — pointing out that he was selected by Cambodian workers and not the CNRP.

Heang asked if Tha agreed with Rainsy’s call to protest against and “topple the government,” with the activists saying he didn’t support any illegal activities. But Heang pressed him.

“I already stated, it is not an activity that is in line with Cambodia’s laws,” Tha retorted.

Defense lawyer Sokong asked Tha if he believed Rainsy could gather forces and upset Cambodia’s social security.

“I think he can’t because the armed forces belong to the state and they are under the state control. It could be a political message,” Tha said.

The court then read out the testimony of Yu Chantheany, who was a news presenter for CNRP’s Facebook news bulletin and was absent from court. Chantheany returned from exile earlier this year and defected to the CPP.

This trial will resume on December 14 where 13 defendants will be questioned. The other trial, involving incitement of the military and CNRM, will resume on Thursday.

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