Cambodia’s Appeals Court denied opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Kem Sokha bail in absentia Tuesday as he awaits a trial on charges of treason, prompting his legal team to boycott the proceedings in protest.
Kem Sokha was arrested without a warrant in the capital Phnom Penh on Sept. 3 and accused of trying to topple the government with backing from Washington, in a move critics say shows Prime Minister Hun Sen is intensifying his attacks on political opponents ahead of national elections scheduled for 2018. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
In the lead up to the hearing, the Ministry of Interior had said Kem Sokha would not be brought to the court from Trapeang Phlong Prison in Tbong Khmum province due to “security concerns,” after it learned that provocateurs might incite crowds planning to gather at the building.
On Tuesday, hundreds of armed security personnel were deployed on the streets surrounding the Appeals Court ahead of the hearing, which was closed to the media and the public, while dozens of opposition lawmakers and around 100 supporters stood outside calling for Kem Sokha’s release.
When authorities confirmed that the opposition leader would not be allowed to attend his hearing, Kem Sokha’s lawyers boycotted the proceedings, saying the decision was made in violation of their client’s rights. The court went ahead with the hearing and upheld Kem Sokha’s provisional detention, according to an earlier ruling by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service after the ruling, one of Kem Sokha’s lawyers, Chan Chen, said there was no precedent in which the Appeals Court had barred an appellant from their own hearing, adding that the court had acted against the standards of both local and international law.
The court’s claim that it was acting in the interest of Kem Sokha’s security was merely an excuse to prevent him from attending the proceedings, the lawyer said.
“If we appeared at the hearing, it would have seriously impacted our client’s rights, which is unacceptable,” he said.
“We are just lawyers, so we are not party to this matter. Kem Sokha was the only person that needed to appear before the court.”
In a statement in response to the boycott, the Appeals Court said Kem Sokha’s presence was unnecessary because the hearing was not evidentiary, adding that by refusing to attend, his lawyers were hurting his case. No date has been set for his trial.
Following the ruling, senior CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay said that his party has no plans to hold mass demonstrations calling for Kem Sokha’s release, but vowed to stand outside of the opposition leader’s prison every Monday in protest of the charges against him until he is freed.
Son Chhay added that the CNRP will continue to request visits with Kem Sokha after being refused access to the party chief twice on orders by the investigating judge that only his family members and lawyers may see him before his trial.
On Monday, the opposition party launched an advocacy campaign for the release of its leader by hanging posters bearing Kem Sokha’s image and a call for his immediate and unconditional release would be posted at CNRP offices throughout the country.
Also on Tuesday, more than 300 members of the Cambodian diaspora held a protest in front of the United Nations Human Rights Council headquarters in Geneva demanding that the group pressure Cambodia’s government to release Kem Sokha, end human rights violations, and respect the principles of democracy by allowing for free and fair elections in 2018.
The protest was the latest by overseas Cambodians to call for Kem Sokha’s immediate and unconditional release following others held in the U.S., France, Canada, Germany, Australia, Belgium, Switzerland, and South Korea.
It came a day after French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian urged Cambodia to resume a pluralistic democracy and to respect human rights and freedom during a meeting with his Cambodian counterpart Prak Sokhon in Paris.
Le Drian raised serious concerns about a political crisis in Cambodia following Kem Sokha’s arrest and a recent crackdown on voices critical of the government ahead of next year’s election.
Since late August, the government has expelled U.S.-funded NGO the National Democratic Institute (NDI), suspended some 20 radio stations that aired content by U.S. broadcasters Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, and targeted the English-language Cambodia Daily with a hefty tax bill, leading to the newspaper’s closure.
Meanwhile, Pol Saroeun, the Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces Research and Exploration Commission on Tuesday ordered provincial and municipal governments throughout Cambodia to suspend activities related to the search for the remains of missing American soldiers in the country, following accusations that the U.S. was assisting the opposition in a plot to overthrow Hun Sen.
The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power with the help of U.S. experts, though the U.S. embassy has rejected any suggestion that Washington is interfering in Cambodian politics.
While Hun Sen first mentioned a suspension of search activities on Sept. 15, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has yet to issue any official diplomatic to the U.S. government about the decision.
Government-aligned media outlet Fresh News has cited Hun Sen as saying the suspension of cooperation with U.S. military-led teams on search activities was a response to Washington’s halt on the issuing of most visas to senior foreign ministry officials and their families, as well as “several other issues.”
According to the U.S. government, the remains of 48 American soldiers killed during the Vietnam War have yet to be located in Cambodia.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.