A Cambodian court filed no charges against a high-ranking opposition party official on Wednesday after seven hours of questioning him on accusations that he incited deadly riots at a garment factory complex in January 2014, the politician’s lawyer said.
Attorney Choung Choungy said his client, Kem Sokha, vice president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and first vice president of the National Assembly (parliament), was being asked too many questions about incidents unrelated to why he was being questioned.
During the trial from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., judge Ly Sophanna asked Kem Sokha about a speech he gave to Cambodian-Americans during a recent trip to the United States and a July 2014 demonstration supported by the CNRP that turned violent in the capital’s Freedom Park.
“Some of the questions the judge asked him [Kem Sokha] were not appropriate, such as why Mr. Von Pov, president of the Independent Democratic of Informal Economic Association, went to welcome him at Phnom Penh International Airport upon his arrival from the U.S. in late March and why he staged demonstrations and other [irrelevant] questions,” said Choung Choungy at a press conference after the trial.
Von Pov had been arrested for an inquiry following the clash between security forces and striking workers at the garment factory complex on the outskirts of Phnom Penh in January 2014, during which five workers were killed.
The court wanted to continue questioning Kem Sokha on Thursday, but Choung Choungy said he asked Ly Sophanna to end the trial after the first day, to which he agreed.
When asked about the trial, Ly Sophanna said he was in a meeting and did not have any comment.
About 200 people, including human rights group officials, CNRP supporters and foreign journalists observed the proceedings in front of the courthouse while the trial was in session.
About 30 security personnel drove around the courthouse and exchanged words with the CNRP supporters.
Analyst Kem Lay said the court hearing was a politically motivated attempt by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to split the CNRP and put pressure on it to get what the CPP wanted in the formation of a new National Election Committee (NEC).
The new body, consisting of four members from each party and a neutral ninth member, will oversee the country’s elections. It replaces an old body of the same name which was set up in 1998 and has been accused of facilitating election fraud in favor of the CPP.
Both parties agreed to reform the body as part of a political deal last July that ended the CNRP’s 10-month boycott of parliament following disputed elections in July 2013 which kept the CPP in power amid allegations of government control of the NEC.
“The summoning of Mr. Kem Sokha for questioning at court is not legitimate,” Kem Lay said. “Any court summons can be done only after parliament has taken away a lawmaker’s immunity.
“Any charges against, arrests or detentions of a member of parliament must have approval from the parliament or its permanent committee with two-thirds of the votes.”
Kem Lay went on to say that if the summoning of Kem Sokha was not meant to split up the CNRP, then Sam Rainsy, CNRP president, should have been summoned as well.
“Now the CPP is boasting about Sam Rainsy, while attacking Kem Sokha,” he said, adding that the CPP’s actions have only caused the government and party itself to lose popularity.
When Kem Sokha received the summons to appear in Phnom Penh municipal court last week, the document didn’t specify an accusation, but stated that the case in question occurred on January 3, 2014, the date of the deadly garment worker strike, Choung Choungy told the The Phnom Penh Post.
Choungy also said it was the second time Kem Sokha had been called for questioning about the riot, and noted that the recent summons originated from the same complaint by the Ministry of Interior’s internal security department made in January 2014, when his client was questioned alongside Sam Rainsy, according to the news report.
Sam Rainsy said it was “strange” that Kem Sokha had been called for questioning because he had parliamentary immunity, and said the accusations against him were unfounded, the report said.
Reported by Zakariya Tin of RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.