Cambodia resumed controversial mass trials for more than 100 critics, opposition members and activists on Thursday in what rights groups called a politically-motivated move to suffocate dissent in the country.
The hearings, delayed in November due to the coronavirus pandemic, are the latest swipe at the beleaguered opposition in the Southeast Asian country, which has been ruled for decades by strongman leader Hun Sen.
Pictures on Thursday showed defendants arriving at the court in Phnom Penh wearing orange jumpsuits and face masks. Only 34 out of 121 defendants showed up at the initial hearings in November, with most of the accused having fled the country.
Many of the accused have ties to the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), a once-powerful opposition movement that was banned in 2017, forcing many of its members into self-exile.
The charges, including conspiracy and treason, are partially tied to a failed attempt by opposition leaders to return to Cambodia in 2019.
“It is my right to go home,” Mu Sochua, one of the accused and a prominent member of the now-defunct CNRP, told a virtual press conference on Thursday timed to coincide with the hearings.
“I have been charged with very serious crimes like treason and conspiracy and am being put on trial. I want to face the charges brought on by Hun Sen and his regime and not be silenced.”
Sochua, who fled Cambodia in 2017 after courts dissolved the CNRP, has been living in the U.S. under dual citizenship. She said she was recently denied a visa by the Cambodian embassy in Washington and turned away after her passport was revoked last year.
Hun Sen has been in power since 1985, and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party claimed all seats in 2018 elections that were held with no meaningful opposition party taking part. Critics also say the country’s courts have no independence.
Sochua said she and her colleagues were still intent on returning to Cambodia but added that coronavirus-related restrictions have made it even more difficult.
“The borders are closed and land entry via Thailand and Laos will be impossible,” she said, adding that the worst case scenario was being arrested upon arrival.
“I am willing to take that dangerous risk even during the pandemic because I would be going to jail for the sake of national dialogue. So no matter what happens, I will make that journey home.”
Rights groups, diplomats and lawyers have called on Hun Sen and the Cambodian government to respect the rights of citizens and allow those facing trial to return and face fair judicial processes, free from state interference.
“It’s time to relook everything that has been going on in Cambodia,” said Kasit Piromya, Thailand’s former foreign minister who is on the board of the Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).
“There was optimism 20 years ago that peace and prosperity would return to the country but it hasn’t, thanks to one man who has been in power for more than 30 years.”
Amnesty International’s Asia director Yamini Mishra said the fact that opposition politicians could not enter the country to defend themselves against serious accusations shows how “cynical” the whole process is.
“All politically-motivated charges should be dropped without delay,” Mishra said.
Cambodian government officials have repeatedly defended the trials as being necessary for upholding justice and the rule of law. A Cambodian spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.