The former head of Cambodia’s opposition party, Kem Sokha, will have to face trial for treason, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court said Monday, despite the easing of restrictions on his house arrest last month and requests by his lawyers to drop his case.
“After the conclusion of a thorough investigation, the investigating judge found adequate evidence against the accused Kem Sokha for treason and decided to send the accused, with case file # 6400, to trial on December 2, 2019," the court said in a press release.
RFA’s Khmer Service could not reach the court for further comments. Kem Sokha’s lawyer, Chan Chen, said that he only knew that his client would be sent to trial, but does not know the date.
On Nov. 19, Kem Sokha’s legal team formally appealed to Phnom Penh Municipal Court investigative judge Khy Rithy to “drop all charges against His Excellency Kem Sokha so he can enjoy his full freedom” and return to his role as the president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
The lawyers said that a video recorded in 2013 in which Kem Sokha discusses a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts is insufficient evidence to prove he had collaborated with a foreign nation to try to topple the government.
On Nov 10, authorities announced that Kem Sokha, 66, who since late 2018 had been allowed only monitored meetings with his family and lawyers in the confines of his housing compound, was free to leave his house, but was not allowed to travel outside Cambodia or take part in political activities.
Authorities arrested Kem Sokha in September 2017, and Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and banned 118 of its elected officials from politics two months later for its alleged role in a plot to overthrow the government.
The moves were part of a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
The U.S. Embassy rejected any suggestion that Washington was interfering in Cambodian politics at the time of Kem Sokha’s arrest, and the former CNRP president has said that his statement in the 2013 video “was merely an educational speech on the appreciation of human rights and democracy,” adding that he believes his arrest and the dissolution of his party were politically motivated.
Western governments and rights groups have called the charges against Kem Sokha unsubstantiated and urged that his case be dropped, while the EU has highlighted his case as an example of the government’s infringements on political rights that could lead to the withdrawal of Cambodia’s tariff-free access to the bloc’s markets under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme for developing nations, currently under review.
Asked about Monday’s trial announcement, political analyst Kim Sok told RFA the court was not being transparent.
They don’t want the public to know in advance about the trial, so people will be unable to go to the court to observe the hearing. This is Hun Sen’s political game,” he said.
Kim Sok predicted that the court could find Kem Sokha guilty, and then Hun Sen will ask the country’s king to pardon him to quell international criticism.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sum Sok Ry. Written in English by Paul Eckert.