A court in Cambodia has refused to drop “treason” charges against opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Kem Sokha citing an ongoing investigation, his lawyer said Wednesday, despite holding him for more than a year in pre-trial detention.
Lawyer Pheng Heng told RFA’s Khmer Service on Wednesday that Kem Sokha’s legal team received a letter from Phnom Penh Municipal Court Investigating Judge Ky Rithy dated March 19 denying a request they had submitted five days earlier to drop the charges against their client based on a lack of evidence.
Pheng Heng dismissed Ky Rithy’s explanation that the court is still collecting evidence and gathering witnesses in the case.
“It has been almost two years, so the judge should have completed the investigation,” he said.
“The defense believes there is no crime, so we asked that the charges against Kem Sokha be dropped.”
CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 for alleged acts of “treason” and the Supreme Court ordered the party’s dissolution two months later, which paved the way for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in a July 2018 general election.
Kem Sokha was finally granted a release by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court from prison detention on Sept. 10, 2018 under the conditions that he must stay within a block radius of his home, cannot meet with CNRP officials or foreigners, and cannot or host any rallies or political activities.
Pheng Heng said he believes Ky Rithy’s decision—rejecting the legal team’s fourth request that charges be dropped—was “politically motivated,” and “does not comply with the law,” adding that such cases are typically resolved through political dialogue in democratic countries.
“This case is more about political motivation than the law,” he said.
Attempts by RFA to contact Ministry of Justice spokesman Chhin Malin for comment on Kem Sokha’s case went unanswered on Wednesday.
Last week, a European Union delegation met with top officials in Cambodia to discuss whether the Southeast Asian nation should continue to enjoy preferential trade terms with the bloc amid rollbacks on democracy.
The EU decided in February to launch a six-month monitoring period to determine whether Cambodian exports should continue to enjoy tax-free entry into the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme.
The EU trade measure, and a similar one proposed by the U.S. Congress, was motivated by the September 2017 arrest of Kem Sokha, as well as a wider crackdown on media and civil society.
Foreign Affairs spokesman Ket Sophann told reporters last week following a meeting between Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn and the EU delegation that the EU had reiterated a call for the government to release Kem Sokha from house arrest, but said the request was similar to one made last year, and that only the Ministry of Justice can review his case because it “concerns a court process.”
Also on Wednesday, Hun Sen announced a decision to reduce the number of national holidays in Cambodia from 28 annually as a reform aimed at improving the economy, saying it had nothing to do with whether the EU ends the country’s benefits under the EBA scheme.
“We are poor, but we enjoy many holidays, and this will cause investors to flee because salaries are on the rise and we have too many days off,” he said, speaking at a graduation ceremony in the capital Phnom Penh.
“Next year we will reduce the number of national holidays. We are doing this regardless of whether we have the EBA or not—we’re doing it to make sure that we become a developed country.”
Hun Sen, who did not provide details about how many holidays would be cut, stressed that his government “doesn’t rely on handouts” from other countries and “will not abide by insults or allow anyone to force us to act how they would like.”
His comments came days after he waved off concerns that China “wants to control” his country while speaking at a groundbreaking ceremony in Kampong Speu province for a new U.S. $2 billion Chinese-funded expressway, calling the claim a trick by the opposition to turn public opinion against him, even as observers warned that mounting loans and aid will leave Phnom Penh hopelessly indebted to Beijing.
After the CPP’s election victory, Beijing offered its full support of Hun Sen’s government, and Cambodia has increasingly backed China in its international affairs, including in disputes with ASEAN nations over its territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Chinese investment has flowed into Cambodian real estate, agriculture and entertainment—particularly to Sihanoukville, where the expressway will end—but Cambodians regularly chafe at what they say are unscrupulous business practices and unbecoming behavior by Chinese residents, and worry that their country is increasingly bending to Beijing’s will.
Wednesday’s decision to reduce the number of national holidays immediately drew concerns from those who warned the move would negatively impact the country’s workers.
Ath Thon, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, noted that Cambodians work typically work six days a week, unlike workers in other nations who enjoy two-day weekends.
“Even though we have many holidays, workers work on Saturday, so things equal out,” he said, adding that the government was acting on behalf of the interests of factory owners, rather than the country’s labor force.
Yang Srun, a textile worker at a factory in the capital owned by Seduno Investment Cambo Fashion Co. Ltd., told RFA the reduction in holidays would affect her income, morale and health.
She added that many people who work on holidays will no longer be able to draw extra pay if those days are no longer official days off.
Lek Sopheak, a worker at the Bowker Garment Factory in Phnom Penh, said the government is unfairly pressuring workers, adding that companies are making a significant profit in Cambodia, regardless of the number of holidays in the country.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.