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Cambodian court convicts 21 opposition figures of treason

March 17, 2022 GMT
Local security personnel try to grab a banner from supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, March 17, 2022. The Cambodia court on Thursday convicted 21 people of treason and related charges for their nonviolent political opposition to the government several years ago. Those convicted by the court included seven exiled leaders of the disbanded Cambodia National Rescue Party, each of whom received 10-year prison terms. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
Local security personnel try to grab a banner from supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, March 17, 2022. The Cambodia court on Thursday convicted 21 people of treason and related charges for their nonviolent political opposition to the government several years ago. Those convicted by the court included seven exiled leaders of the disbanded Cambodia National Rescue Party, each of whom received 10-year prison terms. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
Local security personnel try to grab a banner from supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, March 17, 2022. The Cambodia court on Thursday convicted 21 people of treason and related charges for their nonviolent political opposition to the government several years ago. Those convicted by the court included seven exiled leaders of the disbanded Cambodia National Rescue Party, each of whom received 10-year prison terms. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
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Local security personnel try to grab a banner from supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, March 17, 2022. The Cambodia court on Thursday convicted 21 people of treason and related charges for their nonviolent political opposition to the government several years ago. Those convicted by the court included seven exiled leaders of the disbanded Cambodia National Rescue Party, each of whom received 10-year prison terms. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)
1 of 7
Local security personnel try to grab a banner from supporters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Thursday, March 17, 2022. The Cambodia court on Thursday convicted 21 people of treason and related charges for their nonviolent political opposition to the government several years ago. Those convicted by the court included seven exiled leaders of the disbanded Cambodia National Rescue Party, each of whom received 10-year prison terms. (AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A court in Cambodia on Thursday convicted 21 people of treason and related charges for their nonviolent political opposition to the government several years ago.

Those convicted by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court included seven exiled leaders of the disbanded Cambodia National Rescue Party, each of whom received 10-year prison terms.

They included party co-founder Sam Rainsy who has been in exile since 2016 to avoid serving prison sentences for defamation and other charges. He says the cases against him are politically motivated.

Sam Rainsy has long been the harshest critic and most popular opponent of Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held power for 37 years. The treason case involved his attempted return to Cambodia in 2019 that was blocked by the government.

The other party leaders convicted were Sam Rainsy’s wife Tioulong Saumura and five former lawmakers.

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Another 13 defendants who were convicted were ordinary party supporters, each sentenced to five years imprisonment, reduced by the court to three years and eight months. One more man, not present at the trial, had his sentence suspended for health reason because he had suffered a stroke two years ago.

“Upon the announcement of the verdict, these 13 people shouted together at the judge that they were innocent and they cannot accept this unjust verdict,” defense lawyer Sam Sokong said. He said they told him to appeal the verdict.

Relatives and other supporters of the defendants tussled outside the court with police, with several women falling to the ground as a banner was grabbed away from them.

“The mass trial and convictions of political opponents on baseless charges is a witch hunt that discredits both the Cambodian government and the country’s courts,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch said in an emailed statement.

All the defendants have been charged with conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony, mostly in connection with organizing Sam Rainsy’s abortive 2019 trip home. The party leader were also convicted of inciting members of the armed forces not to follow their orders.

The CNRP, as the sole credible opposition party, had been expected to present a strong challenge to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party in the 2018 general election.

Hun Sen launched a sweeping crackdown on his opponents before the election, the high court disbanded the CNRP and its lawmakers were removed from Parliament. Hun Sen’s party subsequently won every seat in the National Assembly.

Several Western nations imposed sanctions on Cambodia’s government after concluding the 2018 election was neither free nor fair. The harshest measure came from the European Union, which withdrew some preferential trading privileges.

The trial started in 2020 but was suspended until December due to coronavirus restrictions. Initially, nearly 130 defendants were listed and were split into three trials for manageability. Many did not turn themselves in, and how many will eventually stand trial is unclear.

“It’s just another day of injustice here in Cambodia. It’s the norm now, injustice is the norm,” said Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer and activist whose own treason case is being tried separately.