Anger mounts over jailing of 11 opposition activists in Cambodia
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Anger mounts over jailing of 11 opposition activists in Cambodia

Activists and opposition members have spoken out in anger after a court in Phnom Penh sentenced 11 members of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to as much as 20 years in prison Tuesday after convicting them of insurrection in connection with a violent protest last year.

Rights groups have called for the 11 to be exonerated and released immediately after what many are calling a sham verdict at the Phnom Penh court.

The July 15, 2014, protest at the capital’s Freedom Park came as opposition lawmakers were boycotting parliament to demand political reforms, claiming the previous year’s election had been rigged by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

Opposition supporters clashed with civilian security auxiliaries armed with batons and homemade weapons deployed by the government to keep the protesters out of the park, which the authorities had closed amid mounting anger against the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP).

Meach Sovannara, an opposition spokesman, was one of three defendants sentenced to 20 years in prison for leading the violent protest. Eight others received seven-year sentences for taking part.

The verdict is likely to threaten the fragile truce that has emerged between the CPP and CNRP in the last year.

Speaking to Reuters, Naly Pilorge, director of Cambodian rights group Licadho, called the proceedings a “show trial”.

“We are shocked. This is another clear example of how the executive is using courts to threaten political activists,” she said.

“The absurd conviction of the 11 CNRP members and supporters shows that Cambodia remains in the grip of an authoritarian government. More international pressure is needed to stop Hun Sen from eliminating political opposition and eradicating civil society,” said FIDH President Karim Lahidji.

Human Rights Watch called on the Cambodian government to “immediately exonerate and unconditionally release” the 11 opposition members.

Reports also emerged that the spouse of one of those jailed lost her eldest son to liver cancer within hours of the verdict.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has moved to tighten his grip on power and stifle dissent ahead of planned 2018 elections, particularly with the passing of a law earlier this month that commentators say could undermine freedom of civil society in the country.

The controversial ‘LANGO’ legislation was passed by all 68 parliamentarians from PM Hun Sen’s party, while opposition boycotted the vote.

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Riot police stand guard in front of a “No” sign held by protesters during a march towards the National Assembly in Phnom Penh, Cambodia last week. Pic: AP.

“This unfair jailing of CNRP members and activists also follows last week’s boycott by CNRP’s 55 members of parliament of the extraordinary session in which the ruling party voted for the Law on Associations and Non Governmental Organisations (LANGO),” said LICADHO technical Ccoordinator Am Sam Ath in a statement.

(READ MORE: Strongman Hun Sen’s last bid to control Cambodia’s vocal civil society)

Additional reporting from Associated Press