A court in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh warned opposition leader Kem Sokha not to engage in any further political activities after the prosecution played a recorded conversation he held with supporters ahead of recent local elections, the latest wrinkle in his trial that started more than two years ago on unsubstantiated charges of treason.
The deputy court prosecutor demanded Kem Sokha’s arrest after alleging that he had met with allies in the northwestern province of Siem Reap prior to the June 5 vote for commune council seats and discussed politics.
Kem Sokha was released from pre-trial detention to house arrest in September 2018 and granted bail in November 2019 by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, the terms of which allowed him to travel within Cambodia but restricted him from taking part in any political activities.
An undercover investigator recorded one of the conversations, which was used as evidence in Wednesday’s proceedings.
Kem Sokha was allowed to return home when the court session ended at 2 p.m.
His lawyer, Pheng Heng, told RFA’s Khmer Service that Kem Sokha would be more careful about interactions in order to avoid new charges as the trial unfolds.
“He didn’t make any political speech,” said Pheng Heng. He said that Kem Sokha has participated in public gatherings, like weddings, Buddhist ceremonies and a feast, none of which were political.
“The deputy prosecutor thought it was political activity, but the defense thinks otherwise,” Phen Heng said.
Kem Sokha is not part of any political party recognized by the Ministry of Interior. The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) — which he co-founded with Sam Rainsy, who is living in self-exile in France — was dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in November 2017, two months after he was arrested over an alleged plot backed by the United States to overthrow the government of Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 35 years.
Kem Sokha therefore could not have been engaging in politics, his lawyer argued.
Wednesday’s hearing was the 46th session of the trial that started prior to the coronavirus pandemic. While the trial was delayed by the court’s closure during the height of the pandemic, critics believe that since then the authorities have been stalling in an attempt to keep Kem Sokha out of the public sphere to curb his political influence.
During the 46th session, the court did not address the underlying charges against Kem Sokha, but focused instead on his recent activities.
The case against Kem Sokha is clearly politically motivated, Yi Sok San, a senior monitor for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (Adhoc), told RFA.
“I urge the government to differentiate between politics and law,” he said, adding that it was not fair to raise the new allegation against Kem Sokha without informing the defense.
CPP spokesperson Chhim Phall Vorun told RFA that the government’s case is not politically motivated.
Experts condemn mass trial
U.N. human rights experts on Wednesday requested a review of a June 14 mass trial where 43 defendants with connections to the CNRP were convicted on charges of plotting and incitement, receiving sentences of up to eight years.
U.N. officials Vitit Muntarbhorn, who monitors human rights concerns in Cambodia, Clement Nyaletsossi Voule, who tracks freedom of peaceful assembly issues, and Diego Garcia-Sayan, who promotes the independence of judges and lawyers, signed the statement.
“The outcome of this first instance trial reinforces a troubling pattern of political trials peppered with judicial flaws,” the experts said in a statement. “We urge the government to urgently review and remedy the process to ensure the defendants’ access to justice.”
Among the convicted activists is Cambodian American lawyer Theary Seng, who was recently moved from a prison in Phnom Penh to a more remote location, which the experts said makes family or consular visits more difficult.
“On these grounds, the government is urged to review these convictions — and all pending similar cases — and to ensure future judicial proceedings adhere to international obligations,” the experts said.
“This is critical to ensure the trend of shrinking civic and democratic space in Cambodia, aggravated by these trials, is reversed. A hindered access to justice not only infringes the rights of the victims, but has an overall chilling effect on society, discourages participation in assemblies and associations, and contributes to the dangerous trend of closing of civic space,” they said.
Cambodia’s mission to the U.N. rejected the assessment of the trial as “misleading news.”
The mission asserted that the trial was not politically motivated and said calling it as such was “unfounded and prejudicial.” It said that the experts’ narrative “one-sided and biased.”
Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.