Days ahead of the trial of opposition chief Kem Sokha, a court in Cambodia’s capital has summoned a spokesman for the country’s ruling party to testify at his hearing, drawing concerns from observers who say the move is part of a bid to smear his character.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Monday called Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesman Chhim Phalvorun, who has regularly made comments critical of Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha, to act as a witness at Kem Sokha’s Jan. 15 trial on charges of treason, which could see him jailed for up to 30 years if convicted.
“I will say what I know and I will not exaggerate,” Chhim Phalvorun, who worked with Kem Sokha when he founded the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) nongovernmental organization in 2002, told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“My testimony will based on integrity, justice and truth. I will not speak based on political alignment or my role [as CPP spokesperson], but based on what I know and what I don’t know.”
When asked about the latest witness called in his client’s case, Kem Sokha’s lawyer Meng Sopheary told RFA that summoning people for testimony is a “normal court procedure,” without providing further details.
Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 and charged with treason over a video recorded four year earlier in which he discusses a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts.
Two months after Kem Sokha’s arrest, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the 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.
Since the election, authorities have detained several CNRP activists over allegations of “treason” and restricted or surveilled others, while appearing to turn a blind eye to physical assaults against party supporters by unknown assailants believed to be associated with the CPP.
In addition to Chhim Phalvorun, prosecutors have called eight witnesses ahead of Kem Sokha’s trial that observers say are either irrelevant to his case or part of a bid to undermine his character, including a land activist, the victim of a land dispute, activists from the CNRP, and an environmental campaigner.
Last week, the court summoned a former elected official with the CNRP from Banteay Meanchey province named Leng Vibol who said he had never even spoken to the party chief.
Speaking to RFA, political analyst Kim Sok said he doesn’t believe that Chhim Phalvorun will be neutral in his testimony.
“I believe that the goal of his presence in court is to defend the CPP because he is the party’s spokesman, so he will act as a lawyer for the ruling party,” he said.
Seoung Sen Karona, a spokesman for local human rights group Adhoc, told RFA that he doesn’t understand why the court has summoned so many people who “aren’t relevant” to Kem Sokha’s case.
“This is why we will need to watch closely as to how the trial will be conducted,” he said.
Chhim Phalvorun received a summons to testify at Kem Soka’s trial as heads of Cambodia’s national and military police forces issued orders to all security forces throughout the country to “take preemptive action” to stop people from gathering in a bid to disrupt the proceedings, sources told RFA.
The Phnom Penh Post also quoted National Police spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun as saying that security will be heightened across Cambodia on Wednesday, especially in the capital and around the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, in preparation for Kem Sokha’s trial.
“We have prepared our security plans, not only in regards to where the trial is taking place, but also the whole of Phnom Penh,” Chhay Kim Khoeun told the Post.
“It is also aimed at maintaining security across the country against any incitement by ‘that’ group,” he added, in an apparent reference to the CNRP.
The Post also cited Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Sar Thet as saying that his officers would maintain security around the court to ensure the trial proceeds smoothly and that Kem Sokha’s supporters would not be allowed near the building because they could interrupt the trial proceedings.
Last week, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court announced that the courtroom for the trial can hold a maximum of 30 people, and Voice of America reported Monday that media outlets and NGOs had been notified that most of the seats were being reserved for diplomatic staff, raising concerns over how the proceedings will be covered.
VOA also quoted Licadho senior investigator Am Sam Ath as saying that the trial should be more open to the general public because of the amount of interest Kem Sokha’s case has garnered both domestically and within the international community.
Kem Sokha has maintained his innocence since his arrest, which saw him spend more than a year in pre-trial detention before he was moved to strict house arrest, and his legal team has said prosecutors lack the evidence to convict him.
Following the 2018 ballot, Western nations have threatened sanctions against Hun Sen’s government over his rollbacks of democratic freedoms in Cambodia, calling for the reinstatement of the CNRP and for authorities to drop charges against Kem Sokha.
The European Union will make a decision in February about whether to withdraw Cambodia’s tariff-free access to its marketplace under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme for developing countries based on the state of human rights in the nation, including the openness of its political space.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.