BANGKOK — A Cambodian court convicted 19 members of the country’s main opposition party on charges of “incitement” and “conspiracy” on Thursday, as Prime Minister Hun Sen pushed forward with a set of trials that critics condemn as the latest effort to eliminate the last vestiges of dissenting political voices in what is already a virtually one-party state.
The court handed down sentences of between five and 10 years, with the longer terms given to seven leaders of the political opposition who had fled abroad to avoid arrest, including Sam Rainsy, the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party; the party’s deputy leader, Mu Sochua; and another opposition politician, Eng Chhay Eang.
They had already been found guilty last year of what the authorities said was a plot to topple the government and sentenced to terms of more than 20 years.
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The trials, which have been going on for more than a year, have ensnared more than 100 people.
“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,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Cambodia’s politicized courts have facilitated Prime Minister Hun Sen’s effort to destroy the last remnants of democratic freedoms and civil and political rights in the country.”
The prosecutor had accused those convicted on Thursday of being part of a “secret network” that sought to disrupt Cambodia’s economy, encourage the military to disobey the government and use the Covid-19 pandemic to undermine the government’s credibility and provoke uprisings.
“The justice system has again been used as a blunt political tool in an attempt to quash opposition to Hun Sen’s dictatorship,” Mr. Sam Rainsy, who lives in France, wrote on Twitter. “Opposing dictators is a duty, not a crime.”
His party, which had been the sole credible opposition, was dissolved in November 2017 by the Supreme Court, which is controlled by the ruling party, causing many activists to flee the country.
That move marked the beginning of a wider crackdown that paved the way for Mr. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party to win all 125 parliamentary seats in a general election in July 2018.
Since then, the authorities have stepped up arrests of opposition politicians, human rights defenders and other dissenting voices.
For the past two decades, Mr. Hun Sen has been whittling down the democratic standards and processes that were put in place by the United Nations in the early 1990s. Nongovernmental organizations and rights groups that had flourished in the early years of his rule have been crushed.
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He has also eliminated virtually all independent voices in the news media, most significantly by forcing the closing in 2017 of The Cambodia Daily, a newspaper that had been a signal of the country’s new openness and democratic possibilities when it launched in 1993.