Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha on Wednesday urged court authorities to allow testimony from representatives of the countries he is accused of colluding with to topple the government as the third week of his treason trial kicked off, saying they will exonerate him.
Kem Sokha’s lawyer, Pheng Heng, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the defense team asked the court to allow foreign government representatives to testify, saying they will dispute claims by prosecutors that the opposition chief committed “conspiracy with foreign powers,” including the U.S., in a case that could see him jailed for up to 30 years if convicted.
“Please find the alleged foreigners—if you say that I colluded with the U.S., please summon [representatives of] the U.S.,” Pheng Heng quoted Kem Sokha as saying during Wednesday’s proceedings at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
“If you investigate and find that the U.S. government or its agents [were involved], please question them,” he said, citing the CNRP leader.
Another member of Kem Sokha’s legal team, Chan Chen, said that Kem Sokha told the court that the U.S. would back up his claims of innocence—claims he has maintained since his arrest more than two years ago.
The presiding judge did not provide a response to Kem Sokha’s request, his lawyers said.
Prosecutors have cited as evidence of Kem Sokha’s “treason” a video that was recorded in 2013 and shows him discussing a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts—though the U.S. Embassy had rejected any suggestion that Washington was interfering in Cambodian politics at the time of his arrest.
The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh did not comment Wednesday on whether it would take part in trial proceedings against Kem Sokha if summoned by court authorities.
Chan Chen said the trial will resume on Thursday with discussions of Kem Sokha’s role as the head of Cambodia’s Human Rights Party from 2007 to 2012, which the lawyer said he had established “to serve the people, not foreigners.”
The trial, which convenes on Wednesdays and Thursdays each week, has been dogged by allegations of political motivation and a lack of judicial independence, while rights groups and media watchdogs have been critical of restricted access to the proceedings for NGOs and journalists.
On the eve of the first day of the case, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called Kem Sokha “the victim of a staged trial on completely bogus treason charges,” while London-based Amnesty International suggested Kem Sokha’s “non-existent crime was politically manufactured to further the suppression of the opposition party.”
Two months after Kem Sokha’s arrest in September 2017, 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 Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
In the aftermath of the election, western governments have shunned Cambodia, including that of the European Union, which has called for Kem Sokha’s release and a host of improvements to Cambodia’s human rights situation ahead of a February decision on whether to withdraw the country’s tariff-free access to its markets under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) scheme for developing nations.
On Nov. 12, the EU warned in a preliminary report that Cambodia has not taken enough measures to prevent a withdrawal of its EBA status, noting the country’s further deterioration of civil, political, labor, social, and cultural rights since the launch of a review process in February last year.
Cambodia is the second-largest beneficiary of EBA trade preferences, accounting for more than 18 percent of all imports to the EU market under the EBA scheme in 2018.
EU imports from Cambodia totaled 5.3 billion euros (U.S. $5.8 billion) that year, nearly all of which entered the EU duty-free, taking advantage of EBA preferences.
Clothing and textiles—a crucial industry in Cambodia that employs around one million people—account for around 75 percent of EU imports from the Southeast Asian nation.
On Wednesday, National Police Commissioner Neth Savoeun lumped potential protests calling on the government to maintain EBA status into a group of other activities that he equated with a “color revolution” aimed at overthrowing the government, and said authorities will shut them down.
“Cambodia is facing attacks from inside and outside the country, especially those inciting villagers to protest over land disputes, human rights, democracy, and the EBA and GSP,” he said, referring to the EU’s Generalised Scheme of Preferences that includes the EBA as one pillar, and which may be suspended in case of “serious and systematic violation of principles,” according to the GSP Regulation.
“[They] incite workers to hold demonstrations to provoke national instability and social order,” he added, without elaborating who is responsible for such “attacks.”
Neth Savoeun said he had requested support from Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior, including the provision of additional forces and equipment.
Minister of Interior Sar Kheng on Wednesday said that he agrees with Neth Savoeun’s proposal for support, suggesting that the CNRP is behind a plot to destabilize Cambodia and end the country’s EBA status.
“I’ve already prepared to help … [the police] get good results, as expected,” he said.
The CNRP’s chief in Phnom Penh, Morn Phalla, condemned Neth Savoeun’s statement, saying the authorities are treating the government’s critics as enemies.
He said Hun Sen had created the problems that will lead Cambodia to lose the EBA and that his government should resolve the issue.
“This police plan risks splitting the country and causing chaos,” he warned.
Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for local rights group Licadho, expressed strong reservations over the plan, saying it will provide the authorities with an unwarranted excuse to take legal action against the opposition.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.