Three United Nations human rights experts on Friday expressed concerns over the treason trial of Cambodia’s opposition leader Kem Sokha, saying the entire process has been “beset by irregularities” and calling for an end to the charges against him.
“We have strong grounds to believe that the treason charge against Mr. Sokha is politically motivated and forms part of a larger pattern of the misapplication of laws to target political opponents and critics of the Government,” U.N. Special Rapporteurs Rhona Smith, David Kaye, and Diego Garcia-Sayan said in a statement.
“The entire process of Mr. Sokha’s arrest and detention has been tainted by irregularities, and clear neglect of international human rights law and Cambodian law,” said the experts, who are the rapporteurs on the situation on human rights in Cambodia, the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and the independence of judges and lawyers, respectively.
Kem Sokha, 66, was arrested in September 2017 and charged with treason over the video. He maintains his innocence and his lawyers have said that prosecutors lack evidence to convict.
Two months after Kem Sokha’s arrest, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) for its role in the alleged plot and banned 118 of its officials from political activities.
The move to dissolve the CNRP was 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 experts noted Friday that Kem Sokha was taken into custody without an arrest warrant and “with disregard for his parliamentary immunity privileges,” as he was an elected CNRP lawmaker in the National Assembly at the time.
“He was also denied access to a lawyer in the early stages of his detention, and was ultimately held in pre-trial detention for a period that exceeded the maximum period permissible under Cambodian law,” they said, noting that in an opinion reached in 2018, the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention found that Kem Sokha’s detention was arbitrary.
On Wednesday, prosecutors kicked off Kem Sokha’s treason trial by showing a two-minute clip of a video they say is proof that he colluded with the U.S. to try to overthrow Cambodia’s government, but his lawyer Meng Sopheary said at the time that the context of the full hour-long video was missing.
The video cited as evidence by the court was recorded in 2013 and shows Kem Sokha discussing a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts—though the U.S. Embassy had rejected any suggestion that Washington was interfering in Cambodian politics at the time of his arrest in 2017.
The CNRP chief faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
In their statement on Friday, the U.N. Special Rapporteurs also expressed serious concern over public comments by some senior officials in relation to Kem Sokha’s case that they said could jeopardize his right to a fair hearing and “influence the outcome of his trial.”
A lack of public access to the courtroom, which was limited primarily to members of the diplomatic corp, “also puts in question the fairness of his trial,” they said.
On Thursday, a group of 82 Cambodian NGOs and the U.S. Embassy issued separate statements urging authorities to allow greater access to the hearings.
Lastly, the U.N. experts reiterated their call on Cambodian authorities to “ensure justice for Mr. Sokha,” immediately remove the restrictive bail conditions he faces, reinstate his political rights, and ensure his right to compensation and other reparations.
In response, the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of Cambodia to the U.N. Office at Geneva issued a statement saying it “is disturbed with, and deplores” the press release outlining the Special Rapporteurs’s concerns, which it called “politically motivated and totally intending to mislead the public” about Kem Sokha’s trial.
The Mission said that Kem Sokha’s parliamentary immunity did not allow him to “act with impunity” and that no crime can be justified by “some personal or political motive,” adding that all legal actions taken against the opposition leader “are in full conformity with relevant laws of the country.”
It dismissed the Special Rapporteurs’ reference to Kem Sokha’s detention as arbitrary, saying that the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has no knowledge of the legal and political situation in Cambodia, and that their opinion “carries no weight … upon a sovereign state.”
The Mission also waved off the U.N. experts’ concerns over lack of access to the courtroom, saying it demonstrated that their “assessment of Cambodia relies upon unverified and unreliable sources of information,” and suggesting that in any democratic country, access to the courtroom is always at the discretion of the court, based on space, order and conduct of the proceedings.
Finally, the Permanent Mission called on the rapporteurs to avoid making statements “that can be construed as an interference in the judiciary system of Cambodia.”
‘Trial without evidence’
Also on Friday, acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy told RFA’s Khmer Service that Kem Sokha’s trial amounts to a political “show” that will lead to Cambodia’s condemnation by the international community.
“Kem Sokha is being tried without evidence and shows the world that Hun Sen has miscalculated,” he said in an interview from Paris, where he has lived in self-imposed exile since 2015 to avoid a strong of what he says are politically motivated charges and convictions.
“The world is condemning [Hun Sen]. I have been waiting for this [trial] for a long time. Hun Sen is facing an impasse and I am happy to see it.”
Sam Rainsy said Hun Sen hopes to draw out the trial—hearings for which are scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday each week—for as long as he can, but the acting CNRP chief called on members of his party to “do everything possible to quickly end the trial,” capitalizing on a lack of evidence to convict.
“We must do what we can to demonstrate that Kem Sokha’s trial is just a show,” he said.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chhin Malin told RFA that nothing can interfere with the affairs of the court.
“No amount of criticism, including from Kem Sokha’s supporters and ex-CNRP members, will impact on the court’s decision,” he said.
Meanwhile, CNRP activists in Svay Rieng province’s Romdul district told RFA on Friday that they had been barred from leaving their homes during Kem Sokha’s trial proceedings on Jan. 15 and 16.
Activist In Sary told RFA that Romdul district police deployed forces to monitor his activities and prevented him and other CNRP supporters from leaving their houses because authorities were afraid they would travel to Phnom Penh to monitor Kem Sokha’s trial.
“The authorities asked us to seek their permission if we want to leave our houses,” he said, adding that he had been prevented from buying food and medicine for his grandchild.
“I don’t understand what I have done wrong,” he added.
Srey Samol, an officer with the police in Romdul’s Sangke commune, rejected the activists’ accounts, telling RFA, “We didn’t do anything.”
Nuth Bopinaroth, the Svay Rieng coordinator for Cambodian rights group Licadho, confirmed to RFA that several activists in the province were placed under surveillance and prevented from leaving their homes, adding that police had “violated the rights of the people guaranteed by the constitution, simply because they want to observe Kem Sokha’s trial.”
“Human rights are declining daily—it was awful that the police monitored the community,” he said, adding that such violations affect peoples’ businesses and disrupt public unity.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.