A lawyer representing Cambodia opposition officials living in self-imposed exile said Monday he plans to make a formal request that a court allow his clients to return to the country to defend themselves against charges of “incitement” and “treason,” days after the government said it will not admit them.
In November, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court summoned at least 113 individuals connected to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to stand trial together on charges of conspiracy and incitement to sow chaos in society—crimes punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Presiding judges later split the defendants, including many who live overseas, into two groups for hearings to be held in January and March.
Last month, CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua said she would lead the party leadership and activists back to Cambodia on Jan. 14 to face the charges, which they insist are politically motivated. However, members of the party in exile say Phnom Penh has canceled their Cambodian passports and those with foreign travel documents have been unable to obtain visas to enter the country.
Sam Sokong, who represents the CNRP defendants, told RFA’s Khmer Service that he will submit a letter to the court on Tuesday, asking that it allow his clients to appear at their trial.
“I will submit the request in writing to the court so that the court can make the authorities enforce these criminal cases—meaning take the necessary means to allow my clients, the accused, to be present during the court proceedings,” he said.
“It is very important for them to listen and defend themselves against the accusations. Their appearance during the court proceedings will allow them to directly answer all questions as well.”
Last week, government spokesperson Phay Siphan told RFA that Mu Sochua and other CNRP members are not welcome in Cambodia, despite their upcoming trials. He said the government will not grant them passports or visas and they will “have to find a way to enter Cambodia on their own” because they “organized a coup d’état.”
Phay Siphan’s comments appeared to suggest the CNRP exiles are already presumed guilty of the charges against them and that the government does not intend to provide them the right to defend themselves in court.
Right to defend oneself
Am Sam Ath, senior investigator with local rights group Licadho, told RFA that for justice to be done, those charged should be allowed to return to Cambodia to attend their trial and said it is the responsibility of the government to issue them visas and passports to do so.
“The accused have the right to receive information related to the indictment and to defend themselves with arguments and evidence in court,” he said.
“Moreover, the authorities should use all means to notify the charged and help them to appear in court, especially when they have expressed a desire to attend the court proceedings in person.”
RFA was unable to reach court spokesperson Ey Rin or government spokesperson Phay Siphan for comment Monday.
Speaking to RFA during a live call-in show on Monday, Mu Sochua said she and other CNRP officials who have been summoned by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court remain determined to return home for their trial.
“We already bought tickets on Singapore Airlines and we’re ready to go,” she said.
“Beyond that, it is the responsibility of the Cambodian government to allow us to return to Cambodia to appear at the court proceedings to face our charges.”
Amid the coronavirus pandemic, Cambodia has ceased issuing visas on arrival. Mu Sochua, who holds an American passport, said she will travel to Cambodia regardless.
On Jan. 14, the court will try 47 CNRP activists and officials, including acting CNRP President Sam Rainsy, deputy president Eng Chhay Eang, Mu Sochua, and others on charges of plotting to overthrow the government and incitement to cause social unrest.
CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government, and two months later the Supreme Court banned the CNRP for its supposed role in the scheme.
The move to dissolve the CNRP marked the beginning of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Sam Rainsy, who has lived in self-imposed exile since late 2015, vowed to return on Nov. 9, 2019 to lead nonviolent protests against Hun Sen, urging Cambodian migrant workers abroad and members of the military to join him. However, his plan to enter Cambodia from Thailand was thwarted when he was refused permission to board a Thai Airways plane in Paris.
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