Cambodia’s Appeal Court in the capital Phnom Penh has denied opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha bail, his lawyer confirmed Thursday, returning the head of the now-dissolved political party to prison in remote Tbong Khmum province to await trial on charges of treason.
Thursday’s hearing was the first time Kem Sokha had been seen in public since his Sept. 3, 2017 arrest on charges of collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
Kem Sokha was driven into the capital from Trapeang Phlong Prison near Cambodia’s border with Vietnam under heavy security before dawn, and anti-riot police prevented rights monitors, most members of the media, and supporters—including his 92-year-old mother—from attending the morning’s court proceedings.
Observers from several foreign embassies and the United Nations’ human rights office were also refused entry to the hearing.
Reuters news agency quoted Appeal Court spokesman Touch Tharith as saying that the court had “decided to uphold the lower court's decision not to release Kem Sokha on bail,” but refused to elaborate.
But lawyers for Kem Sokha, who had sought bail because he suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes, said the court had cited a need to keep the defendant safe and “ensure smooth proceedings” in his case.
Hem Socheat, one of Kem Sokha’s lawyers, said he “regretted the decision,” adding that the court also cited a need to “conduct further investigations” into his case.
Shortly after the ruling, Kem Sokha was whisked back to prison in Tbong Khmum province. No date has been set for his trial.
In late September, the Appeals Court denied Kem Sokha bail in absentia, prompting his legal team to boycott the proceedings in protest. In the lead up to the hearing, the Ministry of Interior had said Kem Sokha would not be brought to the court from Trapeang Phlong Prison due to “security concerns,” after it learned that provocateurs might incite crowds planning to gather at the building.
Thursday’s decision drew a swift rebuke from observers, who say Kem Sokha’s case is politically motivated and—along with the Supreme Court’s decision in November to ban the CNRP for its role in his alleged plot—part of Cambodia’s recent slide towards dictatorship ahead of general elections in July. The CNRP was expected to pose a strong challenge to the CPP in the ballot.
Malaysian MP Charles Santiago, chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), told RFA’s Khmer Service that Cambodia’s judiciary was deliberately complicating Kem Sokha’s case and acting in concert with the government to convict the opposition chief, which he said would “squash democracy and reduce accountability” in the Southeast Asian nation.
“It’s very clear that the government has interfered in the trial, so this is no longer a standard case,” he said.
“This is politically motivated, because it is baseless to accuse Kem Sokha of treason.”
The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts—though the U.S. embassy has rejected any suggestion that Washington is interfering in Cambodian politics.
Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for New York-based Human Rights Watch, told RFA that Kem Sokha’s case is “made up” and is in violation of human rights and rule of law.
“The government is out of control and no longer respects human rights or international standards,” he said.
“My conclusion is that human rights and democracy is just a joke [in Cambodia].”
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said he was unsurprised by Thursday’s decision, adding that the court is “merely a political instrument for the ruling party.”
Meanwhile, Hun Sen told students at during a graduation speech in Phnom Penh on Thursday that only he could decide when to hand over power and vowed to deploy heavy weapons, such as truck-mounted rocket launchers, to destroy followers of the Cambodia National Rescue Movement (CNRM)—a movement launched earlier this week by exiled former CNRP president Sam Rainsy.
“I want to make clear that no one is able topple Hun Sen but Hun Sen,” he told graduates from the Institute of Technology of Cambodia, addressing Sam Rainsy, who has lived in exile since 2015 to avoid convictions widely seen as politically motivated.
“Don’t force me to put another nail in your coffin. Your cases at the court are another story, but if you try to create a secession area, we will use BM-21s to destroy you.”
Over the weekend, Sam Rainsy officially launched the CNRM, which he said “cannot be dissolved” because it does not need to register with the government, and will not be subject to monitoring by its ministries. The CNRM’s main objectives are to secure Kem Sokha’s release and ensure free and fair elections that the CNRP can participate in, but Hun Sen has labeled it a “terrorist movement.”
Hen Sen on Thursday also warned foreign countries to ignore lobbying efforts by movement leaders to get them to stop buying Cambodia’s goods as a way of pressuring him to reverse an ongoing crackdown on the political opposition, and threatened to ban imports from nations that block Cambodian products.
The U.S. and EU have said they plan to compile lists of individuals who spearheaded the dissolution of the opposition and other rights violations in Cambodia, with a view to level sanctions against them, and have pledged to review trade agreements with the country.
‘Appropriate for enemies’
Political analyst Hang Vitou told RFA that Hun Sen had no right to threaten the public, noting that the CNRM professes to be a nonviolent movement that seeks to provide hope for the more than 3 million supporters who voted for the CNRP in prior elections, but were left without a party after its dissolution.
“His words are appropriate for enemies who invade Cambodia’s territory, but he shouldn’t say such things about citizens who are making peaceful demands for freedom,” he said.
Hun Sen’s lengthy career in Cambodia, both before and during his 32-year rule at the helm of the country, has been riddled with violence and bloodshed, historians say.
On March 30, 1997, a grenade attack on approximately 200 anti-government demonstrators across the street from the National Assembly in Phnom Penh left 16 people dead and more than 150 people injured, including Sam Rainsy.
While the perpetrators were never brought to justice, a preliminary report by the Federal Bureau of Investigation found that Cambodian government officials, as well as personal bodyguard forces employed by Hun Sen, were primarily responsible for the attack.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.