A Cambodian court has begun hearing the cases of nearly 130 government critics and opponents charged with treason for taking part in nonviolent political activities over the past three years, in what one of them called a sham trial.
Only 33 defendants attended Thursday's session at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, with some believed to be overseas.
Most are former members or supporters of the disbanded Cambodia National Rescue Party.
As the sole opposition party in parliament, it had been expected to present a strong challenge to Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party in the 2018 general election.
But in late 2017, Hun Sen launched a sweeping crackdown on his opponents and the CNRP was forced by the high court to disband and its lawmakers removed from parliament.
Many people believe the court acted to ensure that Hun Sen's party won by sweeping all the seats.
Virtually all of the defendants have been charged with conspiracy to commit treason and incitement to commit a felony, which together carry a maximum penalty of 12 years in prison, according to defence lawyers and human rights activists.
It was not immediately clear why only 33 defendants attended Thursday's court session. An unknown number are believed to be living abroad, including senior politicians and Cambodian labourers in neighbouring countries, said Ny Sokha of the local rights group ADHOC. Cambodian law allows trials in absentia.
Judge Ros Piseth agreed to split the defendants into two groups to make the proceedings easier, with the first group having its initial hearing on Jan. 14 and the other on March 4.
The judge said he was adjourning the trial for now so that defendants who did not yet have lawyers and declined court-appointed ones could find representation.
On Wednesday, the UN human rights expert on Cambodia expressed serious concerns about the trial.
"The mass trials of CNRP activists appear to be politically motivated, lacking clear legal grounds and constitute a serious violation of the due process rights, firmly established by international human rights law," said Rhona Smith.
"This is not an isolated episode," she said in a statement. "Civic and democratic space in Cambodia has continued to shrink and there remains little evidence of political rapprochement and reconciliation."
Australian Associated Press