Treason charges against opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha will not be dropped unless his legal team produces “new and convincing evidence” to prove his innocence, Cambodia’s Ministry of Justice said Thursday.
“Unless new and convincing evidence is produced to rebut the current legal and factual grounds for the charges, the request [to end the case against him] appears weak and unsubstantiated,” Chin Malin, a spokesperson for the ministry told RFA’s Khmer Service.
The statement came in response to a request by Kem Sokha’s lawyer Pheng Heng for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to drop the charges against his client, in part because his extended pre-trial detention appears to have violated Cambodian law, and suggests that prosecutors lack solid evidence to prove him guilty.
“Procedurally, [pre-trial detention of] an accused person or suspect shall not exceed the duration of 18 months, including two extensions,” Pheng Heng told RFA earlier on Thursday.
“However, there are no guidelines that cover when they are released on bail or are under obligation of judicial inspection, as in when an investigation is still underway, so we don't know how long it will last for.”
Cambodian law stipulates that a person under judicial obligation may challenge that status at any time, whereupon the investigating judge in their case must rule whether it should continue and explain why.
Attempts by RFA to reach Phnom Penh Municipal Court investigating judge Ky Rithy for comment on the status of Kem Sokha’s case went unanswered on Thursday.
Authorities arrested Kem Sokha in September 2017, and Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and banned 118 of its elected officials from politics two months later for its alleged role in a plot to overthrow the government.
The moves were 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.
While Kem Sokha was freed on bail in September last year, he remains under de facto house arrest and must adhere to conditions that he stay within a block radius of his home, cannot meet with CNRP officials or foreigners, and cannot speak at or host any rallies or political activities.
The opposition chief faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of treason, but no date has been set for his trial.
Evidence of ‘treason’
The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses 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.
Kem Sokha has said that his statement in the video “was merely an educational speech on the appreciation of human rights and democracy,” and believes that his arrest and the dissolution of the CNRP were politically motivated.
In the nearly two years since his arrest, Western governments and rights groups have called the charges against him unsubstantiated and urged for his case to be dropped.
In May, at the conclusion of her seventh visit to the country, Rhona Smith, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, called for the release of Kem Sokha from house arrest, though government spokesman Phay Siphan said his fate is a “matter for the courts.”
The ministry’s statement on Thursday came as Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU) president and advisor to the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA) Rong Chhun told reporters at a press conference in Phnom Penh that a rally to call for Kem Sokha’s release, which was slated for Aug. 15, had been postponed due to “prior commitments.”
The announcement did not include a date for which the rally had been rescheduled, but followed the municipal government’s rejection of his request to hold the rally, which Rong Chhu called “unconstitutional.”
“It’s too bad that we weren’t allowed to gather to express our opinions before the city, including to call for the release of Kem Sokha and the dropping of all charges against him,” he said.
“Such restrictions by the city government are nothing short of a violation of the right to peaceful assembly. They are also unconstitutional.”
Rong Chhun had petitioned the municipal government to hold the rally in July, but his request was immediately rejected by officials who claimed that such an event would run in contradiction to the Supreme Court’s ruling to dissolve the CNRP, while city governor Khuong Sreng went even further by threatening to take legal action against him if he proceeded with the gathering.
Also on Thursday, National Police Commissioner Neth Savoeun and Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF) Commander-in-Chief Vong Pisen convened a meeting with relevant provincial authorities to arrange the deployment of security forces at all border checkpoints in anticipation of a planned return to the country by acting CNRP chief Sam Rainsy and other senior oppositions leaders in exile.
Chhay Kim Khoeun, a spokesperson for the General Commissariat of National Police (GCNP), told RFA after the meeting that the police and military stand ready to arrest Sam Rainsy and any other CNRP senior officials whose names appear on court arrest warrants, and escort them to prison.
“We have preventative measures in place because, if they do this, it will constitute a violation of the Supreme Court’s verdict and will therefore be illegal,” he said.
“I hope our citizens will not join them in violating the Supreme Court’s verdict for [Sam Rainsy’s] sake. The National Police recently issued a statement calling on the public to refrain from becoming involved in such an illegal act.”
Sam Rainsy left Cambodia in late 2015 to avoid what are seen as politically motivated convictions on defamation and other charges, but has continued to actively shepherd the CNRP in exile. In early June, he announced that he had agreed to return to the country in September, following a decision by fellow party executives to go home to restore democracy in the authoritarian Southeast Asian country.
At the end of July, Sam Rainsy wrote in a post to his Facebook account that it was “an honour to be wanted by [the Hun Sen regime’s] fascist police and to be persecuted by their kangaroo court,” noting that “the more they persecute me in Cambodia, the more democracy awards I receive around the world.”
On Thursday, Maonh Sarath, the CNRP’s coordinator in Thailand, told RFA that “hundreds of thousands of people” would be waiting to receive Sam Rainsy on his return to Cambodia, despite threats of arrest, and, in so doing, sound the death knell for Hun Sen’s government. He suggested that “competent authorities” would also ignore Hun Sen’s demands to arrest Sam Rainsy.
Chim Phat, a Cambodian migrant worker in Thailand, told RFA that “tens of thousands” of Cambodian laborers there are ready to escort Sam Rainsy across the border.
“Whenever Hun Sen raises this issue, it means that he is in fact scared of [Sam Rainsy’s return],” he said.
“I am ready to accompany Sam Rainsy, and let Hun Sen go ahead and arrest me! I am not afraid. If he dares to arrest Sam Rainsy, we supporters stand ready to go to jail. At this point, nothing frightens us anymore.”
Korn Savang, coordinator for Cambodian rights group COMFREL, told RFA that now is the time for political compromise.
“We should take a look at our neighboring countries—they continue to benefit from our internal conflicts,” he said.
“It should be enough for us to abandon such confrontational political behavior and turn to dialogue to resolve our differences. If we each keep confronting one another, we fail to act in the national interest. This kind of thing does nothing to benefit our society.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Neang Ieng, Nareth Muong, and Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.