Hearings are underway at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for more than 100 supporters of the dissolved CNRP who were charged with incitement and plotting. Arriving defendants and their colleagues say the occasion is a chance for the persecuted opposition to show solidarity.
A crowd of about 100 journalists, human rights monitors and supporters gathered across from the court building near Olympic Stadium since the morning, with reporters saying that defendants were being called into a courtroom in small groups. About 100 uniformed police officers and security guards watched over the area.
Seng Chan Theary, a Cambodian-American human rights lawyer, was among the more than 100 people summoned to appear.
“I would like to call on our Cambodian brothers and sisters to not be scared. When we are more scared, they will pressure us more,” she said before heading into the courthouse.
“When we are united together we will win the confrontation with the dictatorship using nonviolence. It is the only way, because with nonviolence and a firm spirit, we will be successful.”
“I know this situation is very difficult and it could be a risk for me,” Chan Theary continued. “I’m not scared.”
Sin Chanpeou Rozeth, a former CNRP commune chief in Battambang province, said she had traveled to the capital to show her support.
“We came here to support the people who have been summoned. They are friends, acquaintances — like sisters,” she said.
A former colleague, Ley Leak, had become a snack seller since the CNRP was controversially dissolved in 2017, but was now accused of plotting, she said.
“How did a snack seller become a plotter?” Rozeth asked. “I want to know and observe the trial to see how the court made this decision about her.”
Former members of the CNRP, who have faced widespread court action since the party’s dissolution, were coming together for the hearings, she added.
“I wanted to see the faces of the plotters too, because I think they are compatriots, loyal to the nation, wanting to help society,” she said. “They are active citizens.”
Sum Sarith, a former CNRP member from Tbong Khmum province, said he was also there to support ex-party colleagues.
“I’ve come here to demand the release of all prisoners of conscience,” Sarith said. “We ask the government to release them all because they are innocent.”
Lawyer Sam Sokong told VOD earlier this week that nearly 150 CNRP supporters were summoned to appear on Thursday. Many live overseas, and it was not immediately clear how many showed up to court on Thursday morning.
Rhona Smith, the U.N. human rights rapporteur for Cambodia, raised concerns that the court proceedings against more than 100 individuals affiliated with the outlawed CNRP seemed to be part of a strategy to intimidate and discredit government opponents.
“The mass trials of CNRP activists appear to be politically motivated, lacking clear legal grounds and constitute a serious violation of the due process rights, firmly established by international human rights law,” Smith said in a statement late Wednesday.
“This is not an isolated episode. Civic and democratic space in Cambodia has continued to shrink and there remains little evidence of political rapprochement and reconciliation,” she added.
Officials have said court cases against ex-CNRP officials and others would proceed according to the law, and Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday criticized foreign governments calling for quicker court proceedings for involving themselves in Cambodian judicial matters.
“Why do foreigners speak about the trial for some cases in Phnom Penh having to be speedy? … How could we force the court?” he said.
Smith called on authorities to open civic space, protect and promote the rights to assembly and of expression, and ensure fair trial rights for all.
Additional reporting by Nhim Sokhorn
Clarification: An earlier version of this article named Seng Chan Theary as Seng Theary.