A court in Cambodia formally charged opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president Kem Sokha with treason Tuesday in a case his lawyer dismissed as “politically motivated” in the lead up to general elections scheduled for July 2018.
The charges came as the international community and rights groups heaped criticism on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) government for ordering the arrest amid a wider crackdown on the political opposition, independent media, and civil society as the country gears up for next year’s ballot.
Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Kem Sokha was arrested Sunday in the capital Phnom Penh after government-aligned media outlet Fresh News released a heavily edited video from Australia-based Cambodian Broadcasting Network (CBN) it said showed the opposition leader was working with the United States to unseat strongman Hun Sen.
On Tuesday, Phnom Penh Municipal Court deputy prosecutor Sieng Sok concluded his investigation into Kem Sokha’s case and formally charged him with conspiring with a foreign power to “foment hostilities or acts of aggression against Cambodia,” in accordance with Article 443 of the country’s Criminal Code.
According to the court’s prosecution office, Kem Sokha’s statement in the video, as well as “evidence collected by competent authorities,” proved the opposition leader had been conspiring to topple Hun Sen’s government since 1993—activities it deemed in flagrante delicto under Cambodian law.
“Following examination of the case, as well as investigation and verification of evidence based on the suspect’s testimony, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s Prosecution Office is of the opinion that there is sufficient basis to charge Kem Sokha with conspiracy with a foreign power,” the office said in a statement.
A representative from the Prosecution Office took the unusual step of traveling nearly 120 miles (195 kilometers) northeast of Phnom Penh to the remote Trapaing Phlong maximum security prison in Kampong Cham province, near the border with Vietnam, to charge Kem Sokha.
The outcome of Kem Sokha’s trial now rests with the court’s Investigating Judge Ky Rithy. If convicted, he could be sentenced to up to 30 years in prison.
Following the decision by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s Prosecution Office to charge Kem Sokha, the court ordered the National Assembly, or parliament, to strip the opposition chief of his immunity as a lawmaker so that his trial could proceed.
National Assembly spokesperson Leng Peng Long told RFA that he had received the court’s order and said the Permanent Commission of the National Assembly plans to hold an emergency meeting “shortly” to decide how to respond, though a date has not yet been set.
Choung Choungy, one of Kem Sokha’s five defense lawyers, rejected the charges against his client Tuesday, calling the deputy prosecutor’s decision “baseless” and “purely politically motivated.”
He added that police had initially refused him access to Kem Sokha at Trapaing Phlong Prison, which he said was in violation of the law.
Hem Socheat, another of Kem Sokha’s defense lawyers, told RFA that the opposition leader’s legal team had eventually been granted a 15-minute visit with him, and noticed that his health “did not seem good.”
“The appearance of his face and physical condition suggested that he wasn’t well,” he said, though he added that Kem Sokha had later seemed in good spirits while being interviewed by the Prosecution Office.
While Hem Socheat said Kem Sokha’s current health condition was not immediately clear, he noted that his family had been “barred from bringing him medication” on Monday.
Speaking to RFA on Tuesday, CNRP deputy president Eng Chhay Eang said that the party would continue to function in Kem Sokha’s absence and had made no plans to replace him.
“In view of the current deteriorating situation, it makes no difference who assumes the position of president of the party, as the election cannot be free and fair,” he said, adding that Cambodia had regressed to a political “climate of arbitrary arrests where powerful individuals can do anything at will, without respect for the law.”
“The CNRP finds no reason to replace Kem Sokha, even if the court decides to convict him, and will not participate in any election unless the political situation returns to normality, as it was before.”
Former CNRP president Sam Rainsy, who has been living in self-imposed exile in France since November 2015 to avoid jail time for convictions also widely seen as politically motivated, on Tuesday accused Hun Sen of allowing influence from authoritarian Vietnam and China to undermine Cambodia’s national interests in exchange for backing from Hanoi and Beijing to remain in power.
“Only the present leader has involved the country in losing its independence—becoming an orbit country and a colonized nation of neighboring countries,” he said in a video statement posted to his Facebook account.
CPP spokesperson Sok Ey San dismissed Sam Rainsy’s statement as coming from a person “who has been dismissed from society,” adding that Hun Sen had never requested assistance from a foreign power to overthrow a legitimate government.
“Hun Sen is different from Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, since he has never been connected to any [foreign] individuals for assistance or received any orders from anyone,” he said.
Also on Tuesday, civil society organizations working to promote electoral oversight in Cambodia issued a statement voicing their concerns over Kem Sokha’s arrest, saying it could dissuade the public from registering to vote during a 70-day registration period launched by the country’s National Election Committee (NEC) on Sept. 1.
Sam Kuntheamy, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), said low turnout since the registration period began indicated that the arrest may have influenced potential voters.
“We are concerned—that is why we’ve actively promoted [registration],” he said.
“We want to see all [prospective voters] come to register to vote.”
The concerns over voter registration came amid a continuing deluge of international condemnation over Kem Sokha’s arrest from Western governments and rights groups, who called it the latest salvo in Hun Sen’s ongoing attack on democracy in Cambodia.
“The arrest of Kem Sokha is part of Hun Sen’s all-out offensive to wipe out any form of opposition ahead of next year’s general election,” Paris-based Federation of International Human Rights (FIDH) president Dimitris Christopoulos said in a statement on Tuesday.
“It’s imperative for the international community to step up political pressure to prevent Cambodia from descending into irreversible authoritarianism.”
Over the weekend, the European Union said Kem Sokha’s arrest marked a “dangerous political escalation” and said that, along with recent actions by the authorities against NGOs and some media outlets, it suggested “a further effort to restrict the democratic space in Cambodia and the space for independent reporting, comment and criticism.”
“A credible democratic process leading up to the National Assembly election in July 2018 requires an environment in which political parties, civil society and the media are able to carry out their legitimate roles without fear, threats or arbitrary restrictions … In view of his parliamentary immunity, we expect the authorities to release Kem Sokha immediately.”
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein in a statement on Monday expressed serious concern over the arrest, which he said appeared to have been carried out “with no respect for due process guarantees, including respect for his parliamentary immunity.”
Hussein noted that Hun Sen and other high-ranking officials had made numerous public statements about Kem Sokha’s supposed guilt, which he said “breach the presumption of innocence and the right to a fair trial to which he is entitled under Cambodian and international human rights law.”
Reported by Moniroth Morm, Vanndeth Van, and Vuthy Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.