Four of eight lawyers working for jailed Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha abruptly resigned on Tuesday, telling RFA’s Khmer Service the decision was made at the opposition leader’s request, while vowing to support his party’s quest to restore democracy in the authoritarian Southeast Asian nation.
The four lawyers – Sam Sokong, Hem Socheat, Keth Khy and Choung Choungy – sent a joint letter on Tuesday to the president of Phnom Penh Municipal court saying that Kem Sokha asked them to terminate their legal services for him.
“We would like to inform the President [of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court] that Mr. Kem Sokha informed us via his two other lawyers, Mr. Chan Cheng and Mr. Phan Chansak, that he has decided to terminate the four of us from defending his case at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the Appeal Court and the Supreme Court,” read the letter, seen by RFA.
Kem Sokha’s remaining legal team consists of Chan Cheng, Phan Chansak, Meng Sopheary and Pheng Heng.
“We respect Kem Sokha’s decision,” Hem Socheat told RFA on Tuesday.
“We remain loyal to him since he is a leader of the opposition party with support from millions of people,” he added.
“We remain loyal to assist him. It does not mean that we are abandoning him or we are disappointed with him. This is purely a personal request from Kem Sokha,” said Hem Socheat.
“Our mission is to assist him and to help the opposition party that follows democracy and complies with laws in Cambodia. Then as now, we remain committed to helping him in all circumstances as long as he continues to lead the CNRP and to helping support democracy in Cambodia,” the lawyer added.
Kem Sokha was arrested last September on charges of collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the government, and the Supreme Court followed in November with a decision to dissolve the CNRP for its role in his alleged plot, stripping officials of their posts and banning many from politics for five years.
In early April, Kem Sokha called on court authorities to release him so that he can seek medical treatment abroad and restart negotiations with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of a general election slated for July 29.
At the end of March, Cambodia’s Appeals Court upheld Kem Sokha’s continued detention without bail, despite what the CNRP leader’s lawyers have said is his “rapidly worsening” health as a result of the unhygienic conditions of his jail cell in Tbong Khmum province’s remote Trapeang Phlong prison. They have also complained that guards prevent his family members from providing him with medicine.
Kem Sokha also appealed to his supporters and those of former CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who is currently living in self-imposed exile to avoid convictions seen as politically motivated, to “maintain a united front” in the hopes of reinstating the banned opposition party.
His plea for release comes amid an ongoing government crackdown on the political opposition, NGOs and the media—actions widely seen as part of a bid by Hun Sen to ensure the CPP remains in power for another term following the vote planned for July in which the CPP is the only significant party on the ballot.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Paul Eckert.