UPDATED at 10:34 A.M. EST on 2017-12-15
The head of Cambodia’s now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) requested that a court in the country’s capital drop all charges against him while being questioned in his cell in Tboung Khmum province Thursday over allegations he colluded with the U.S. in a bid to topple the government, according to his lawyer.
CNRP President Kem Sokha, who has been held in pre-trial detention at remote Trapeang Phlong prison since his arrest in September for “treason,” urged a court investigator to dismiss the charges and release him unconditionally so that he can help to solve Cambodia’s “ongoing political crisis,” his lawyer, Hem Socheat, told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“Kem Sokha made his oral submission during the questioning hearing,” the lawyer said.
“He asked that all the charges against him be dropped and that he be released. His submission was recorded by the court clerk.”
Last month, Cambodia’s Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the CNRP for its alleged role in a conspiracy to overthrow government, essentially eliminating any threat to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of a general election in July 2018.
The international community has heaped scorn on Cambodia’s government for its actions targeting the opposition, as well as restrictions on NGOs and independent media in recent months, saying the legitimacy of next year’s ballot has been called into question.
Thursday’s hearing was the second time Kem Sokha has been questioned with regards to his charges, following a session on Nov. 24.
In both cases, members of his legal team took issue with the investigator’s line of inquiry, which they said assumed their client’s guilt.
“Every question put to him was inculpatory in nature, to which we strongly objected, but to no avail,” Hem Socheat said of Thursday’s hearing.
The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts—though the U.S. embassy has rejected any suggestion that Washington is interfering in Cambodian politics.
Following the Nov. 24 hearing, Hem Socheat said Kem Sokha had testified that his statement in the video “was merely an educational speech on the appreciation of human rights and democracy,” and said the opposition leader “treats his case and the dissolution of the CNRP as politically motivated.”
Kem Sokha will be questioned a third time on Dec. 21-22.
Also on Thursday, the European Parliament adopted a resolution urging Cambodia’s government to reinstate the CNRP, reverse the Supreme Court’s decision to ban 118 of its officials from politics for five years, and release Kem Sokha.
In a statement issued after the resolution vote, lawmakers expressed “concern about the general elections scheduled for July 2018, stressing that an electoral process from which the main opposition party has been excluded is not legitimate.”
Cambodia benefits from the EU’s preferential “Everything But Arms” scheme, but if authorities “do not respect fundamental rights, these tariff preferences must be temporarily withdrawn,” they said.
Members of parliament also asked the European External Action Service and the European Union Commission to prepare a list of individuals responsible for the dissolution of the opposition and other rights violations in Cambodia, with a view to imposing visa restrictions and asset freezes on them.
The resolution followed a call on Tuesday by the Committee on Foreign Affairs for the U.S. House of Representatives for a list of individuals and businesses in Cambodia who should be subject to sanctions and a pledge to review trade agreements with the country as part of a bid to pressure its government to reverse restrictions on democracy ahead of next year’s general election.
Both the EU and the U.S. have announced that they will withdraw funding for the election unless Cambodia can ensure a free and fair ballot.
Cambodia’s government did not immediately comment on the European Parliament’s resolution, but CPP spokesperson Sok Ey San on Thursday called U.S. threats of sanctions “ruthless and inhumane.”
“It simply shows the deliberate ambition to exert pressure on Cambodia’s government, because they are siding with their puppet [the opposition party],” he said.
“Such measures are nothing short of an intention to promote capitalist ideology in Cambodia and the rest of the world. It’s very ruthless and inhumane to impose punitive measures that lack legal basis.”
Hun Sen maintains that his country is governed by a multi-party democracy and has said elections will proceed as planned, regardless of international recognition.
Top monk criticized
Meanwhile, NGOs and members of the Buddhist clergy on Thursday condemned Cambodia’s top monastic leader, Supreme Patriarch Tep Vong, for using his title to campaign for the ruling party in the majority Buddhist country.
A day earlier, at the 26th National Conference for Monks held at Chaktomuk Hall in the capital, Tep Vong praised Hun Sen and urged his fellow monks to vote for the CPP in July.
“The Cambodian government, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, has done many great things that we need to appreciate,” he told followers at the event.
“We have Buddhism. We have peace, unity, and prosperity. If we lose them we will die. The opposition has never won an election anyway. The winner of the election is pre-determined.”
On Thursday, political analyst Lao Mong Hay told RFA he was not surprised by Tep Vong’s remarks, noting that his title was bestowed on him by the CPP-led government.
“He has to promote the CPP,” he said.
Yoeung Sotheara, legal and monitoring officer at the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), also expressed concerns over “monks getting involved in politics.”
Venerable Chhim Sophy, a senior student at Cambodia’s Pannasastra University, rejected Tep Vong’s appeal for the CPP, saying top monks should “remain neutral and let the people decide which party and leader to vote for.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
Correction: An earlier version of the story erroneously stated that Kem Sokha had been questioned at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.