Jailed political analyst Kim Sok on Wednesday demanded that Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen be made to testify at his defamation trial and refused to answer a judge’s questions during a hearing at a court in the capital Phnom Penh.
Kim Sok has been in jail since Feb. 17 after Hun Sen accused him of implying that his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) orchestrated the July 2016 murder of popular political pundit Kem Ley during an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service, but Kim Sok has said he was simply repeating what many Cambodians believe.
At his first hearing at Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday, Kim Sok called for Hun Sen to appear at his trial to explain why he filed the U.S. $500,000 criminal complaint against him for “inciting social chaos,” but Judge Ky Rithy denied his request.
The decision prompted Kim Sok and his lawyer, Choung Chou Ngy, to attempt to walk out of the court proceedings, but the judge ordered the defendant to remain for the entirety of the hearing.
After his lawyer left the courtroom, Kim Sok stuffed paper into his ears and refused to answer any questions from the judge, who adjourned the hearing and said a verdict in the trial would be announced on Aug. 10. Kim Sok faces up to two years in prison if convicted.
While waiting to be led away, Kim Sok called the proceedings part of a “show trial … arranged for Hun Sen’s benefit.”
“The court is influenced by Hun Sen and acts in accordance with his evil instructions,” he said, as guards prepared to escort him back to Prey Sar Prison.
Rights groups accuse Cambodia’s judiciary of lacking independence and say the government seeks to limit freedom of expression by using the courts to level defamation charges at reporters and critics of the ruling party.
Choung Chou Ngy later told reporters his client was “under pressure” because the court refused to let him be heard, and that this was the reason they had sought to boycott the hearing.
Hun Sen’s lawyer, Ky Tech, denied that Kim Sok had been pressured by the court and said his behavior at the hearing was inappropriate.
“Kim Sok was very rude, even in the courtroom, so it’s no surprise that the court had ruled out his request for provisional release,” he said, referring to a decision by Cambodia’s Appeals Court to deny the defendant bail in March.
The prime minister is not obligated to testify in court because he has a lawyer representing him, Ky Tech added.
Call for statue
Kem Ley was shot dead in broad daylight on July 10 when he stopped in a Star Mart convenience store beside a Caltex gas station in Phnom Penh.
Although authorities charged a former soldier, identified as Oueth Ang, with the murder, many in Cambodia don’t believe the government’s story that Kem Ley was killed by the man over a debt.
Just days before he was gunned down, Kem Ley had discussed on a RFA Khmer Service call-in show a report by London-based Global Witness detailing the extent of the wealth of the family of Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 31 years.
On Dec. 23 the Phnom Penh court quietly closed its investigation into the murder case without revealing its findings and in a final hearing on March 1, Oueth Ang confessed to killing Kem Ley.
As Kim Sok’s hearing was underway Wednesday, the Khmer Student Intelligent Association published an open letter to Cambodia’s Council of Ministers requesting permission to erect a statue of Kem Ley at the site of his killing, but the council immediately rejected the request, saying it has no jurisdiction over the privately-owned property.
The request from the Khmer Student Intelligent Association, who count themselves among Kem Ley’s followers, was also submitted to and rejected by the Cabinet of the Prime Minister, the Ministry of the Interior, and the Phnom Penh Municipal Government.
It came days after Hun Sen donated U.S. $60,000 to the late political commentator’s brother to cover expenses associated with the one-year anniversary of his death and the construction of a stupa in his honor.
Former prisoner Kong Raya, who in February was freed after serving a one year and six-month prison term for urging a popular uprising against the CPP in a Facebook posting, told RFA that Hun Sen should back the proposal for a Kem Ley statue to show that his donation for the funeral was genuine.
Also on Wednesday, 27 domestic and international nongovernmental organizations issued a joint statement urging Cambodia’s Appeals Court to overturn the “unjust conviction” of land activist and rights campaigner Tep Vanny ahead of its review of her case on Thursday.
On Feb. 23, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced Tep Vanny to two years and six months in prison on charges of “aggravated intentional violence” in connection with a 2013 protest she held in front of Hun Sen’s home that ended in violence.
While the protest occurred in 2013, the court prosecutor reactivated the case and charged Tep Vanny in August last year after she was arrested for participating in another demonstration.
Wednesday’s statement—signed by London-based Amnesty International, New York-based Human Rights Watch, and Paris-based Federation of International Human Rights (FIDH)—called her sentence “draconian” and a “clear attempt to silence one of Cambodia’s most fearless and outspoken defenders of human rights” ahead of national elections set for July next year.
The signatories, which also included domestic groups Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) and ADHOC, said Tep Vanny’s February trial did not comply with international standards for fair trial rights, as no credible evidence was presented to justify the charges against her and no cross-examination of prosecution witnesses was possible, because they had only provided written statements.
Defense witnesses maintain that security forces launched an attack against Tep Vanny’s group in 2013, leaving some protesters wounded, knocked unconscious, or with lost teeth, while others suffered broken arms. Tep Vanny was also injured in the confrontation.
“The re-opening of these charges appears to be a politically motivated attempt to restrict and punish Tep Vanny’s work as a land activist and human rights defender, as part of Cambodian authorities’ ongoing crackdown on dissenting voices,” the statement said.
“We call on the Court of Appeal to exercise its independence and rectify the injustice of Tep Vanny’s flawed trial by overturning her conviction and sentence.”
Tep Vanny came to prominence as an activist fighting the Boeung Kak Lake land grab, when some 3,500 families were evicted from a neighborhood surrounding the urban lake in Phnom Penh. The lake was later filled with sand to make way for a development project with close ties to Hun Sen and the CPP.
Reported by Moniroth Morm and Thai Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.