PHNOM PENH -- A Cambodian court on Thursday opened a mass trial of political opponents, including senior opposition members -- some of whom have vowed to return from exile to attend the hearings.
At about 9 a.m. local time, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court began the first of several planned hearings to try roughly 130 people on charges widely condemned as "politically motivated" and "bogus" by rights groups.
Defendants include members and supporters of the banned Cambodian National Rescue Party, formerly the country's largest opposition group, and other critics of the government.
The mass trial stems largely from an aborted attempt by Sam Rainsy, the CNRP's former leader, to return from self-exile in November 2019. Rainsy, who has faced an avalanche of charges and convictions since fleeing to France in 2015, had vowed to lead a popular uprising but was blocked from boarding a flight to Thailand.
He later traveled to Malaysia but failed to make it onto Cambodian soil. Nevertheless, the government characterized the aborted return as an attempted coup. It later charged the party's senior leadership with "plotting against the state" and accused scores of people who had expressed support on social media of "incitement to cause chaos."
The CNRP was forcibly dissolved in 2017 by Cambodia's politically controlled judiciary on unsupported allegations that its leader, Kem Sokha, had plotted with the U.S. to overthrow the government.
The crackdown came after the party proved itself a serious electoral threat to Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party, which has ruled the Southeast Asian nation for more than three decades.
On Thursday morning, judges questioned Kak Komphear, a CNRP activist and one of 10 defendants present in the court, about whether he participated in a Facebook messenger group in which Rainsy's plan to return home was discussed.
Komphear denied involvement in any plot against the government. He said he supported Rainsy's return but did not recruit people to welcome the opposition leader at the border.
Thursday's docket listed 47 people, including Rainsy and Mu Sochua, a senior CNRP member and former vice president.
Sochua, who is currently in the U.S., told Nikkei Asia on Thursday morning that she and two other opposition members had bought plane tickets to return to Cambodia on Sunday to attend court in person.
If they did manage to return, Sochua said more people, including Rainsy, would follow.
But the group's plans remain uncertain. The government has canceled their Cambodian passports and refused to allow visas to those who are dual citizens to reenter Cambodia.Sochua is a U.S. citizen, while Rainsy is a citizen of France.
A government spokesman told local media that authorities had no plans to grant the required travel documents to the defendants.
Sochua urged the government to permit safe passage and condemned Hun Sen's "weaponizing" of the judiciary to sow "terror" and "keep himself in power."
"Cambodia is in real deep trouble, economically speaking," she said. "The situation is ripe for social unrest, that's why Mr. Hun Sen has to use more and more threats."
That sentiment was echoed by human rights groups, which condemned the mass trial.
Kasit Piromya, a former Thai foreign minister and board member for ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, urged the government to return to a more democratic path.
"After years of cementing the country as a one-party state, the unprecedented number of CNRP members and activists currently on trial shows how the ruling regime in Cambodia will stop at nothing until every last voice of political dissent is wiped out," Piromya said.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, noted the case was part of a broader campaign by Cambodia's authorities to stamp out dissent.
"The government's goal," he said, "is apparently to use the country's CPP-controlled kangaroo courts to present the world with a fait accompli -- the effective end of Cambodian democracy and consolidation of Hun Sen's perpetual dictatorship -- by the time the world emerges from the shadow of COVID-19."