PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A Cambodian court on Friday sentenced 13 men to prison terms ranging from five to nine years for plotting to overthrow the government in a case that was criticized by a human rights group as a political setup.
The men were members of a self-styled Khmer National Liberation Front calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen's removal, primarily through Internet postings. The government accused them of plotting an armed insurrection, charging them with "opposing the nation" by "treacherously plotting" to carry out attacks liable to endanger Cambodia's state institutions or violate its national integrity.
The defendants denied their guilt. New York-based Human Rights Watch said no credible evidence against them was submitted, and that the case appeared to be an attempt to discredit the political opposition ahead of last July's general election.
Seven of the defendants appeared in court Friday, while six others were convicted in absentia. The seven in court were arrested in neighboring Thailand in March 2013 and deported to Cambodia.
Judge Sen Neang said the group's organizational documents presented at their one-day trial in February were proof of their guilt. He also accused them of setting off grenades and home-made bombs. Human Rights Watch and defense lawyers said none of the evidence showed the group endorsed violence or armed rebellion.
"The conviction of any of these 13 defendants will not be proof of guilt but rather of Hun Sen's control over Cambodia's courts to weaken the opposition with false accusations," Brad Adams, Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said earlier this week. "No one should be sentenced to prison to serve Hun Sen's political agenda."
When the defendants who were in court, wearing orange prison uniforms, heard the guilty verdicts, they shouted out "injustice" and repeated their assertions of innocence.
Sam Sokhong, a lawyer for the defendants, told reporters he would appeal the verdict.
"How can they overthrow the government if they have no weapons and their movement has no real structure?" he said.