On the day a Cambodian court sentenced him to five months in prison, embattled opposition leader Kem Sokha accused Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government of perpetrating a dangerous “double standard” that amounts to an “attack on democracy.”
“The ruling party applies a double standard with the opposition party members,” the Cambodia National Rescue Party acting president said in an exclusive live interview with RFA-TV Khmer Service that aired on Friday.
The case is not just an attack on an opposition politician, he said, but is an attempt to undermine democracy in a country that has been struggling to implement it for the 30 years Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) have ruled the country.
“Not only does this affect the legitimacy of the election, but it is an attack on democracy,” Kem Sokha told RFA in his first interview since he sought refuge in the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) headquarters in May when heavily armed police attempted to arrest him.
“Today, I am in trouble,” he said. “But I will stand up and face it bravely as I am fighting for justice and democracy in the country so the people of Cambodia can have an opportunity to experience peace and safety.”
He criticized the government for prosecuting him on charges that he failed to appear as a witness in a pair of cases related to his alleged affair with a young hairdresser.
“I have never heard of even a single case where a witness was prosecuted for not showing up in court after he has submitted the reasons for his no-show,” he told RFA.
After a one-hour trial Friday morning Phnom Penh Municipal Court Judge Keo Mony sentenced Kem Sokha to five months in prison and an 800,000- riel (U.S. $2,000) fine for failing to appear.
Kem Sokha’s legal team said it would appeal the verdict.
He was tried in absentia as he and his legal team boycotted the trial to protest the court’s refusal to recognize his legislative immunity.
Under normal circumstances it takes the approval of two-thirds of the national assembly to lift a lawmaker’s immunity, but Kem Sokha’s was revoked under a clause in the Cambodian constitution that allows immunity to be lifted if a lawmaker is caught committing a crime red-handed.
“Parliamentary immunity is always fully enjoyed by the lawmakers of the ruling party,” he told RFA. “That is not the case when it comes to opposition party lawmakers. Our immunity is always taken for granted and arbitrarily abused by the ruling party.”
Deputy prosecutor Sieng Sok told Judge Mony that what matters is Kem Sokha’s failure to show up after the court issued summonses on May 4 and May 17.
‘Punish according to the law’
“Kem Sokha refused to appear in court. This is a crime according to Article 538 of the Criminal Code,” he said. “The prosecutor maintains the charge against Kem Sokha. Please punish Kem Sokha according to the law.”
Kem Sokha faces a soliciting prostitution charge in relation to his alleged affair with Khom Chandaraty, a young hairdresser also known as Srey Mom. He also faces a defamation suit filed by Khom Chandaraty.
The government ramped up its legal pursuit of Kem Sokha after a series of tapped telephone conversations was leaked online in which he appears to talk to a mistress who was later identified as Khom Chandaraty.
While Khom Chandaraty initially denied that it was her voice on the recordings and sought legal counsel from the rights group ADHOC, but she later recanted.
Under questioning by the court over the prostitution charges recommended by the anti-terrorism police, she admitted to having had an affair with Kem Sokha.
It’s unclear just where the initial cases stand, but the court has pressed ahead with Kem Sokha’s prosecution for his failure to appear as a witness. Also unclear is the involvement of the anti-terror police.
While the court is pushing ahead, Kem Sokha’s legal team and the CNRP contend that the party leader is not shirking his legal responsibility, as numerous petitions to the court have been filed explaining why he is immune from prosecution in these cases.
The CNRP argues that the ruling party’s interpretation of the “red handed” clause is illegal, and that the ruling party is trying to get around its inability to muster the votes to suspend Kem Sokha’s immunity.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party holds 68 seats in the country's 123-seat National Assembly, making it impossible to get the necessary two-thirds majority needed to suspend immunity if all the lawmakers vote the party line.
Kem Sokha’s attorneys also contend that the court violated legal procedures by speeding up the legal process. The Cambodian Supreme Court has yet to rule on an appeal filed earlier this week calling for the case to be tossed out.
A tool of the CPP
The court fight highlights a complaint by the CNRP and many critics inside and outside Cambodia who say that Prime Minister Hun Sen and the CPP are using the courts to bludgeon his opponents.
"This conviction of Kem Sokha on trumped-up charges is a political farce. It's all part of Hun Sen's scorched earth plan to destroy the political opposition and run roughshod over the rights of those who dare criticize his government,” said Phil Robertson, a deputy director of Human Rights Watch.
“The human rights of all Cambodians are at risk from this dangerous nexus between an increasingly dictatorial government, politically controlled security forces, and a judicial system that has abandoned all pretense of fair trial procedures,” he added.
At CNRP headquarters on Friday morning, Kem Sokha, flanked by fellow lawmakers, delivered a scripted 10-minute speech to a few hundred supporters, according to local media reports.
“I believe that the national and international opinion is that the use of the judicial system to attack me—the acting leader of the CNRP, the biggest political competitor of the ruling party today—is in order to stop me from participating in upcoming elections,” Kem Sokha said, according to the reports.
The CNRP will decide at its party congress next year whether it will boycott the upcoming elections, he told RFA. Local elections in Cambodia are scheduled for 2017 and national elections for the following year.
The CNRP issued a statement after the verdict accusing the government of misconduct, saying among other things that the court action was based on an unlawfully obtained audio tape, that the court has yet to summon anyone in the case other than Kem Sokha, that he legally responded to the court’s orders, and that the court was pressured by the CPP to reach its conclusion.
Ministry of Justice spokesperson Kim Santepheap dismissed those complaints in a Facebook post.
“The court procedure this morning is the legitimate role and duty of the court as an institution. No one can interfere with its authority,” he posted. “We all know that this case is a personal issue and a legal issue, not a political one.”
An arresting question
While Kem Sokha has been able to avoid arrest for months, that might become more difficult following his conviction.
Chief attorney for the AMRIN Law and Consultants Group and executive director of the legal NGO Cambodian Defenders Project Sam Oeun Sok told RFA that once the court judgment comes into effect, Kem Sokha cannot avoid arrest.
“They can arrest him immediately with the court order,” he said. “But in general, for such a minor offense, they never issue such an order. They wait until the appeal is over.”
Reported and translated by RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Brooks Boliek.