Cambodian court set to rule in treason trial of dissidents

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A Cambodian American lawyer and dozens of other members of a now-dissolved opposition party awaited a verdict Tuesday in their trial for treason that marked the latest move to tame all opposition to the long-running rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Lawyer Theary Seng and most of the other defendants had been charged over a failed attempt by the leader of the defunct Cambodia National Rescue Party to return from exile in 2019. Cambodian authorities blocked Sam Rainsy’s return and alleged the 60 defendants were involved in organizing his trip, which Theary Seng and the others have denied.

Cambodian courts are widely believed to be under the influence of Hun Sen, whose authoritarian style of rule has kept him in power for 37 years. The Cambodia National Rescue Party was his party’s biggest rival before it was disbanded by a court ruling just ahead of national elections in 2018 that resulted in a clean sweep by Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court had charged Theary Seng and most of the others with conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony, which together carried a maximum prison sentence of 12 years.

Many of the 60 defendants fled into exile or went into hiding, and it wasn’t immediately clear how many appeared in court for the verdict Tuesday.

Theary Seng arrived outside the court building garbed as Lady Liberty, in a light green gown and a crown with “Freedom” written on it. She has worn thematic costumes such as Lady Justice to her court sessions to publicize her belief that Cambodia is not a democratic nation and the trial is unfair.

From time to time, she raised up her imitation torch and shouted “free the political prisoners.“

She told reporters outside court that she was ready for a “sham” guilty verdict.

“I am ready and prepared to go to the notorious Cambodian prison for my political opinions, for my beliefs, for my belief in democracy, for my belief in freedom,” she said. ” I am ready to pay the price of prison in order that I live out my conscience and my belief in freedom and justice.”

She said she would not enter the courtroom, wanting her arrest, when it occurred, to be done in the open. “I want them to do it, not in the shadow but do it publicly,” said said.

The disbanding of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, its removal from the ballot, and a government crackdown on media and independence voices paved the way for Hun Sen’s party to sweep the 2018 elections and claim every seat in the National Assembly. He has repeatedly stated his intention to stay in office until 2028 and has endorsed one of his sons to succeed him.

Sam Rainsy, Hun Sen’s main political nemesis, has been in exile since 2016…

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