Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Friday expressed “great disappointment” over recent remarks by U.S. Ambassador Patrick Murphy pertaining to the treason trial of opposition leader Kem Sokha, suggesting he had placed “undue influence” on a judiciary widely seen as beholden to the ruling party.
Murphy on Thursday issued a rare statement on Kem Sokha’s trial, praising the veteran politician and denouncing what he said were “fabricated conspiracy theories about the United States” introduced by the prosecution.
Kem Sokha, the head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was arrested in September 2017 for allegedly conspiring to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government, and his party was banned by the Supreme Court two months later for its role in the alleged plot with a foreign country.
On Friday, a statement attributed to a spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs found fault with Murphy’s comments and labeled them a “violation” of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
“Such statements are deemed as exerting undue influence on the judiciary, an independent and separate organ duly enshrined in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia, and perceived as undiplomatic and disrespectful gesture for the sovereignty of the host country,” the statement said.
“Moreover, such statements ran counter to the renewed spirit of its leaders to revitalize the mutual understanding and respect between the two countries as well as reset a fresh chapter of across the board practical cooperation all the while we are celebrating the 70-year-long friendship this year.”
Ambassador Patrick Murphy, who took up his post last October, had attended Kem Sokha’s trial, which resumed this week after a series of postponements.
In his statement, the diplomat warned that the proceedings, held at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, “have potential implications for rule of law and due process in Cambodia and for Cambodia’s foreign relations.”
Murphy’s statement followed remarks Tuesday by Hun Sen, who threatened to revoke Kem Sokha’s bail and send him to jail for trying to avoid punishment for crimes the prosecution says are proved by a heavily edited video recorded four years earlier in which he discusses a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts.
Kem Sokha maintains his innocence and his lawyers have all along said that prosecutors lack evidence to convict.
Right to comment
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service Friday, Soeung Senkarona, a spokesman for local rights group ADHOC, said it is statements by Hun Sen—not Murphy—that routinely exert undue influence on Cambodia’s courts.
He added that Murphy was right to comment, as Cambodian authorities had previously linked Kem Sokha’s charges to the U.S.
“On behalf of his country, I think the U.S. Ambassador has the right to issue an explanation so that the public has a clear understanding of the issue,” Soeung Senkarona said.
“It is questionable why court officials—both prosecutors and the co-investigating judges—always bring up the relationship between Kem Sokha and the United States. This is a right [Murphy] has, not an issue of interference in sovereignty."
Friday’s diplomatic dustup came days after a new report by the World Justice Project (WJP) ranked Cambodia 15th out of 15 countries surveyed in the East Asia and Pacific region for adherence to rule of law. The WJP Rule of Law Index also placed Cambodia 127th out of the 128 countries surveyed for their rule-of-law performance.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.