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19 Jan 2021 18:12
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  •   Home > News > International

    Cambodian opposition figure Mu Sochua plans return for mass trial despite hurdles

    After living in exile for more than three years, Mu Sochua is making a daring bid to return to her homeland, Cambodia. But what awaits her is almost certain arrest.

    After living in exile for more than three years, Mu Sochua is making a daring bid to return to her homeland, Cambodia.

    But what awaits her is almost certain arrest.

    Ms Sochua, currently residing in the United States where she is a dual citizen, is one of an estimated 130 people facing a mass trial in the capital Phnom Penh, which resumes today after a chaotic beginning in late November.

    "I demand a fair trial," she told the ABC.

    "We cannot let [Cambodian Prime Minister] Mr Hun Sen use the court as his weapon to eliminate the opposition and activists who dare to stand up [and] speak out against the gross violations of human rights in Cambodia."

    The 66-year-old grandmother said she didn't think going to jail was a huge price to pay.

    "To fight for justice in an authoritarian regime, it's not something the ruler will give to you on a silver platter," she said.

    "You have to fight for it, every single inch of it."

    So why are so many people being put on trial, and what obstacles do senior opposition figures like Ms Sochua face in their planned return?

    What happened to Cambodia's opposition?

    Ms Sochua is the vice-president of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and is one of the country's most internationally-recognised politicians, having previously served as Cambodia's Minister for Women's Affairs.

    The opposition party was once regarded as the country's most likely electoral challenge to Prime Minister Hun Sen, who today marks 36 years in power.

    But in September 2017, authorities arrested the CNRP's then-leader, Kem Sokha, in a midnight raid. The following month, his party was forcibly dissolved by the Supreme Court.

    Ms Sochua, after receiving a tip that she too would be arrested, fled the country and has been in exile ever since.

    Hun Sen went on to win a landslide victory the following year, with his Cambodian People's Party sweeping all 125 seats in Parliament.

    Sam Rainsy, the opposition party's former leader who went into exile in 2015, tried to stage a return to Cambodia via Thailand in November 2019, along with Ms Sochua and other CNRP members.

    The plan was ultimately thwarted after Thailand signalled it would not allow Mr Rainsy to enter the country.

    This time around, her path home is also fraught.

    What are the obstacles?

    Ms Sochua will miss the resumption of the trial today, as her flight has already been pushed back after a COVID-19-related cancellation.

    She is now expecting to depart from the US on Friday and land in Cambodia on Sunday afternoon, local time.

    But political issues could impede her, too — Ms Sochua's Cambodian passport was cancelled last year, meaning she will have to try and enter the country on her US passport.

    However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, Cambodia is not currently offering visas on arrival, and anyone wanting to enter the country must have a pre-approved visa, as well as proof of a negative COVID-19 test.

    Ms Sochua said she had applied for a visa at both the Cambodian consulate in Lowell, Massachusetts, and the embassy in Washington DC, but she has not yet been granted one.

    "The Government has said very clearly through its spokesperson, that even with my US passport, they will not issue a visa to me," she said.

    "Why is the Government of Cambodia not allowing me to go and face the court?"

    The ABC approached the embassy and the consulate for comment but did not receive a reply by deadline.

    "The Government has a right to sign or not sign [the visa]," Cambodian Government spokesman Phay Siphan told the ABC.

    He questioned whether her return was genuinely about appearing in the court case, alleging that in November 2019 she and others wanted "to stage a coup d'etat against the Government" when Mr Rainsy planned his return, a claim Ms Sochua said is baseless.

    Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen's Cambodia, wrote in The Diplomat that the planned return "is itself mostly a political exercise, one designed to draw international attention to the country's sharp authoritarian turn since 2017 and ratchet up Western pressure on Hun Sen's Government".

    What's the deal with the trials?

    On November 26, 2020, the mass trial got underway against mostly opposition supporters and activists.

    The exact number of defendants is unclear, with reports ranging from between 113 and 139.

    Most stand accused of "plotting" and "incitement", which together carry a punishment of up to 12 years in prison.

    The charges stem from the failed return of Mr Rainsy in November 2019, which resulted in the arrests of dozens of opposition supporters in the preceding months.

    Cambodian media outlets described a chaotic beginning to the trial in November, where only about a quarter of the defendants were present and many of the accused said they had no information about the charges levelled against them.

    There is also a related trial against several CNRP leaders, which also includes Ms Sochua, due to resume on January 22, which includes similar charges with additional allegations of "the direct incitement to disobedience of soldiers".

    "These trials are merely a continuation of a campaign of harassment and violence against youth, environmental and labour activists, and the forcibly-dissolved CNRP who have taken to the streets to peacefully call on the Government to respect human rights," said Naly Pilorge, director of human rights group Licadho.

    Among those accused is Theary Seng, a Cambodian-American lawyer and outspoken critic of the Government, who described the trial as a sham to reporters outside the courtroom in November, according to the Associated Press.

    "This is not a courtroom. This is a political theatre, it's a political circus," she said.

    In a yet another trial, Australian Hong Lim, the former Victorian MP for Clarinda and a vocal Hun Sen critic, was accused alongside 14 others of incitement in what he has described as a "kangaroo court".

    Ms Sochua called on the Australian Government to take action, citing Australia's involvement in attempts to bring peace and democracy to the war-torn Cambodia of the 1990s.

    "I appeal to the Government of Australia to take this situation very seriously — it's not enough to just monitor the situation," she said.

    The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has been approached for comment.

    © 2021 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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