PHNOM PENH (AFP) - Seven Cambodian activists have been handed jail sentences for treason over comments posted online supporting an exiled opposition figure, their lawyer said on Thursday (Sept 24), deepening the kingdom's crackdown on dissent.
Sam Rainsy, who has lived in France since 2015 to avoid prison for convictions he says are politically motivated, has promised to return to Cambodia.
But an attempted homecoming in November was thwarted by strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen, who labelled it a "coup attempt" and sent out arrest warrants to neighbouring countries.
Opposition activists accused of posting supportive messages last year about Rainsy's return were this week sentenced on "charges of treason" in eastern Tboung Khmum province, lawyer Sam Sokong told AFP on Thursday.
Four in hiding were sentenced to seven years' jail in absentia, with warrants issued for their arrest, while another activist given the same sentence is already in prison.
"This is very unjust for my clients," Mr Sokong said, adding that he would appeal against the sentences.
Two other opposition activists charged with treason were given five-year suspended sentences and would not have to serve out their jail terms, the lawyer said.
The pair have since defected to the ruling party.
The United Nations says Cambodia has arrested 24 human rights campaigners since late July.
Those detained include opposition activists, environmental campaigners and rappers whose songs discussed social issues.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan defended the government's crackdown, saying the arrests were to "prevent chaos and to ensure order and regularity of people's lives".
But Mr Am Sam Ath, deputy director of local human rights group Licadho, called the trend "worrisome".
"We can see the political situation is getting tense," he said.
The UN human rights office earlier this month said there had been a "deepening of the government's intolerance to dissent and repression of the rights to freedom of expression".
Mr Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985, is one of the world's longest serving leaders.