Cambodian Opposition Chief Kem Sokha Loses Appeal For Release

Police outnumber protesters outside the court amid fears of a crackdown.

Lawyer Som Sokong speaks to reporters outside the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh, Oct. 31, 2017.

Cambodia’s Supreme Court on Tuesday turned down an appeal by opposition leader Kem Sokha to be freed from jail, upholding a Sept. 26 decision by an appeals court and leaving him to face trial on charges of conspiring with the U.S. to overthrow the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

Kem Sokha, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP)  was arrested on Sept. 3 and charged with treason in a move critics say shows Prime Minister Hun Sen is intensifying his attacks on political opponents ahead of next year’s general election.

Kem Sokha was not present in court on Tuesday, with court officials citing security concerns involved in moving him from a remote regional jail to the court in the capital Phnom Penh.

In a statement following Tuesday’s hearing, defense lawyer Som Sokong called the court’s decision “unjust and unacceptable.”

“Our defense team submitted significant arguments on factual and legal grounds to show there were several procedural flaws regarding the arrest of our client,” he said. “We regret that the Supreme Court ignored all of our submissions.”

Security was tight during the hearing, with security personnel outside the court outnumbering supporters of the jailed opposition chief, following warnings three days before by Defense Minister Tea Banh that police would crack down on anyone demanding Kem Sokha’s release.

“We will suppress such protests at all cost,” Tea Banh said in Phnom Pen on Oct. 28.

“It is better to crack down on small gatherings now than to allow them to gain momentum,” he said.

'Government afraid'


Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service after the hearing, Candlelight Party president and senator Teav Vannol, formerly of the opposition Sam Rainsy party, said that Monday’s heavy security presence outside the court shows the government is afraid.

“I don’t know what concerns they have that warrant such a deployment,” he said. “The authorities should not have banned people from observing the hearing.”

Defense team attorney Hem Socheat added that statements by ruling CPP prime minister Hun Sen and other government officials suggesting Kem Sokha’s guilt have breached legal guarantees of presumption of innocence.

“My client remains innocent, and the presumption of his innocence should be respected,” he said. “Any public statement by anyone saying that Kem Sokha is guilty is inappropriate.”

'Sell-out'

In an Oct. 30 video posted on Facebook, exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy meanwhile accused the CPP of sowing division within the CNRP, calling opposition party official Mao Monyvann a “sell-out” and plotter working secretly for Hun Sen.

“I really don’t know what it is I am supposed to have done wrong,” Mao Monyvann, a CNRP lawmaker for Cambodia’s Kompong Cham province, told RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday. “Everything I have done is in the interests of the party.”

“I will discuss this with top party leaders inside the country who work with me every day and know clearly what I am doing,” he said.

CPP spokesperson Sok Ey San denied on Monday that Cambodia’s ruling party had bought the help of Mao Monyvann or any other opposition figure.

“Sam Rainsy made this accusation without evidence. He is just talking to gain advantage for his side,” he said.

“The CPP has everything it needs and doesn’t have to rely on anyone’s help.”

Aid, investment threatened

Meanwhile, a European Parliament delegation concerned with ASEAN affairs warned Cambodia on Tuesday that its deteriorating human rights record may negatively impact aid and investment in the increasingly authoritarian country.

“We call on the government to release opposition leader Kem Sokha, to stop the dissolution process of the main opposition party, and to restore the space for free action of political parties, media and civil society organizations, Werner Langen, chair of the delegation which visited Cambodia from Oct. 30 to 31, said.

“The Government of Cambodia should be aware that the European Parliament is a co-legislator for budgetary and trade issues. A serious deterioration of the human rights situation might have implications for development assistance programmes and trade preferences,” he said.

Reported by Nareth Muong for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Richard Finney.