Court sentences Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha to 27 years for treason

The Cambodia National Rescue Party co-founder has been placed under house arrest.
By RFA Khmer
2023.03.02
Court sentences Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha to 27 years for treason Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha greets supporters as he leaves the Municipal Court of Phnom Penh, Cambodia January 16, 2020.
Reuters/Samrang Pring

UPDATED AT 04:15 p.m. ET ON 03-03-2023

Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha was found guilty of treason on Friday and sentenced to 27 years imprisonment -- a verdict the U.S. Embassy called "deeply troubling" and said was based on a "fabricated conspiracy."

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court's sentence comes five years after his arrest. The court said he had colluded with a foreign power beginning in 2010. It said he had one month to file an appeal against its ruling.

Kem Sokha’s lawyer, Meng Sopheary, told RFA that he plans to appeal the judgment.

After the verdict, Kem Sokha was taken out of the courtroom and placed under house arrest. Authorities took control of his house and all personal bodyguards were kicked out, Meng Sopheary said. Security has been tightened around the house. 

His daughter posted on Twitter that he is also barred from meeting anyone but his lawyers and family members. She also clarified that the sentence was not 27 years under house arrest, which should be considered a temporary measure.

The court also stripped him of the right to vote or run as a candidate for an indefinite period.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court defended its decision, saying in a statement that “promoting human rights and democracy is legitimate and is protected by the Constitution. 

“But the court found out that promoting human rights and democracy with help and collusion in secret – and planning with foreign countries and foreign agents to topple the legal government through mass demonstration and color revolution – is illegal,” the statement said. 

Soeung Sengkaruna, spokesman for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association said he was not surprised with the outcome.

"This is a serious verdict,” he said. “The verdict will affect younger politicians, they have a difficult time competing in Cambodia's political environment. I am concerned about human rights and democracy in Cambodia.”

Five-year wait 

Kem Sokha has always denied the charges which led to his arrest in September 2017, when more than 100 armed police officers stormed his home.

Several months earlier his Cambodia National Rescue Party had made large gains in local commune elections.

The 69-year-old was put on trial in January 2020 but the hearings were suspended two months later on the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic. The trial resumed last year. 

The charges against him relate partly to a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power with the help of U.S. experts. The United States Embassy has rejected any suggestion that Washington was trying to interfere in Cambodian politics.

On Friday, the court said in its statement that it omitted the alleged foreign countries that colluded with Kem Sokha from its decision for the sake of national interest and to maintain Cambodia’s relationship with those countries. The court will keep related documents confidential to maintain cooperation between foreign countries, it said. 

After his arrest, Kem Sokha spent a year in Trapeang Phlong Prison near the border with Vietnam. He was transferred to house arrest in Phnom Penh in October 2018. More than a year later, the court eased some of the restrictions by allowing him to travel inside the country but still banning him from participating in politics. 

The ban proved superfluous. Shortly after his arrest Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved and outlawed the CNRP, paving the way for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party to take all 125 National Assembly seats in the 2018 general election. 

“The multi-year process to silence Kem Sokha, based on a fabricated conspiracy, is a miscarriage of justice,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement. “Denying Kem Sokha and other political figures their freedom of expression and association undermines Cambodia’s constitution, international commitments, and past progress to develop as a pluralist and inclusive society.”

Amnesty International Deputy Regional Director Ming Yu Hah said Friday’s judgment revealed the “jaw-dropping lack of independence” of the Cambodian justice system. 

“Sokha is one of many opposition figures who has been put through a physically and psychologically taxing ordeal which will continue after today’s unjust verdict. There can be no right to a fair trial when the courts have been co-opted by the heavy hand of the government,” she said. 

“Sokha has spent years in detention, moved in and out of prison, and endured house arrest in a virtually ceaseless attempt to silence him. He has also been prevented from leaving the country due to unnecessary restrictions on his freedom of movement,” she said. “The Cambodian government should drop these fabricated charges and immediately and unconditionally release Kem Sokha.” 

Statements from ministers, businessmen

After the verdict, government ministers and several prominent business people issued statements in support of the verdict and sentence. The court’s decision was based on the law and the evidence presented by the prosecution, CPP spokesman Sok Ey San said. 

“Kem Sokha can behave during house arrest,” he said. “Kem Sokha must comply with the court's verdict.” 

The verdict is part of a well-planned strategy to ensure smooth power transfer to Hun Sen's son and political heir, Hun Manet, political analyst Seng Sary said.

“This is a one party government hidden under pluralism. It is very sensitive during the transition to eliminate rivals for his successor to grow,” he said. 

Silencing the opposition

Kem Sokha was hoping a not-guilty verdict would clear the way for a return to politics. His daughter told the AFP news agency he was keen to return to the fray ahead of July’s general elections.

With four months to go until that vote, he has become the latest threat to be silenced by Hun Sen.

“It was obvious from the start that the charges against Kem Sokha were nothing but a politically motivated ploy by Prime Minister Hun Sen to sideline Cambodia’s major opposition leader and eliminate the country’s democratic system,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said in a statement released immediately after the verdict. 

“Sending Kem Sokha to prison isn’t just about destroying his political party, but about squashing any hope that there can be a genuine general election in July.”

2008-07-09T120000Z_1958657060_GM1E47916Z801_RTRMADP_3_CAMBODIA.JPG
Kem Sokha, then leader of the Human Rights party, speaks during a rally in Phnom Penh on July 9, 2008. Credit: Reuters/Chor Sokunthea

But acting CNRP President Sam Rainsy told RFA that Kem Sokha's verdict won't break people's commitment toward democracy.  

"If people are demanding justice, democracy will continue to strive,” he said. “We need to ask the voters. The sunset of dictators is coming closer. Hun Sen is revealing himself. He is getting worse, it is pushing Hun Sen to the end.”

Last month, Cambodia’s Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Candlelight Party Vice President Son Chhay, who has been ordered to pay U.S.$1 million in damages to the CPP and the National Election Commission after saying last year’s local commune elections were marred by irregularities.

Also in February Hun Sen shut down Cambodia’s last fully-independent news outlet after Voice of Democracy published a story about Hun Manet. A clever tactician, he then said VoD staff could apply for government jobs without having to sit the entrance examination. On Tuesday the government announced that at least 25 former staffers had applied.

Translated by Samean Yun. Edited by Mike Firn and Matt Reed.

Story updated with statement from court, interview with Sam Rainsy.

POST A COMMENT

Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.