On January 17, I tried for the second time to return to my country, Cambodia, where I was summoned to be tried for treason. Like the first time I tried to return home in 2019, this time too the Cambodian authorities refused to issue me a visa.
I am one of more than 100 members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) who are accused of incitement to commit a crime and conspiracy to commit treason. The government, which launched the lawsuit against us, refused to revalidate the passports of nine of us so that we could come back and defend ourselves in court.
I left my country in 2017, after the detention of our president, Kem Sokha, and was informed that my arrest was also imminent; others have followed suit. Our documents were canceled last year and we were unable to obtain a visa to return home on the foreign passports we have.
A government spokesperson told Radio Free Asia that we are not welcome in Cambodia and will have to “find [a] way to enter Cambodia ”on our own.
While in exile, facing a trial that we cannot personally attend, our members continue to face persecution in the form of physical assault, arbitrary arrest and pre-trial detention.
These acts are intended as a severe warning to our members and supporters to cease their association with the opposition. Arbitrary arrests almost always take place without an arrest warrant. The children of the victims are terrified of the brutal treatment of their parents. Some are forced to drop out of school to help take care of their siblings or because the family can no longer afford to keep them in school, as all savings are used to pay for school visits. prison, expenses and bribes to ensure minimum comfort for imprisoned family members.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s use of the courts as a political tool against us is typical of regimes that do not tolerate dissent. In Cambodia, this practice has reached unprecedented levels. Currently, the President of the Supreme Court is an influential member of the ruling party, as are many judges responsible for ruling on political cases.
Clearly, the ruling party is afraid of the popularity of the CNRP. Our party moved closer to power in the 2013 parliamentary elections and in 2017 voters once again showed massive support for our candidates in the local elections. The CNRP enjoys strong support in most urban areas and has steadily established itself in the countryside which has been in the grip of the ruling party since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979.
The reason our popularity is growing is because we are fighting for a better future for the country – a future of prosperity and independence.
Cambodia was put up for sale by its current rulers. Entire villages are forced to leave their lands to pave the way for large development projects given under concession to private companies owned by magnates close to the ruling party and foreign companies with close ties to senior officials.
The lakes that surround the city of Phnom Penh and which are close to the homes of the urban poor are cut into plots for development and quickly filled with sand dredged from the Tonle Sap – Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake. . Experts have already warned that this is a recipe for an environmental disaster that can leave thousands homeless.
When the poor muster enough courage to take their grievances to court, their case is either dismissed or the trial overturned. It is not uncommon for legitimate landowners to end up in jail.
Over the past few years, we have defended Cambodians who are victims of exploitation and dispossession. Our fight for justice began with factory workers earning less than a dollar a day in the 90s, when Cambodia won quotas and duty-free markets in the European Union.
We fought alongside union leaders who courageously organized, called for general strikes and organized massive peaceful street protests to demand better working conditions and pay. Whenever workers have been crushed by the government or the armed forces, opposition members in parliament have demanded independent investigations and prosecution of those responsible. Even after the murders of workers and union leaders, the courts have rarely acted independently. Until today, we still have to know who killed Chea Vichea – the leader of the Free Trade Union of Cambodia who was assassinated in broad daylight on January 22, 2004.
We continue to defend human rights, freedoms and democracy in Cambodia, even from abroad; our voices cannot be silenced.
We have the right to return home, to attend our own trial and to defend ourselves. Cambodia cannot move forward as long as the judiciary and other national institutions that are the pillars of democracy remain fully under one-man control and work for the benefit of the elites.
I call on the international community, which has invested billions of dollars in the development of Cambodia, to pressure the government to adhere strictly to human rights protections and the rule of law. In particular, the international community should demand to see clear results in initiatives to reform the justice system.
In the absence of progress, targeted sanctions such as a travel ban against senior officials, including judges implicated in human rights violations, must be taken. Members of the ruling elite implicated in corrupt practices must be investigated and their foreign assets frozen.
As democrats, we must stand united in standing up for the dignity of our people and of all those who are unfairly judged. Adhering to the principles of non-violence does not mean accepting injustice passively.
As the oppressed, we must not speak the language of the oppressors and accept the double standard applied to justice. We must not wait in silence or wait for the summons of courts or face false accusations and false accusations. Together, we speak with one voice and continue the struggle to restore to our people the justice they have been denied.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.