The treason trial of Cambodia’s opposition leader Kem Sokha got underway Wednesday with prosecutors presenting evidence of a “conspiracy with foreign powers” that his lawyer said lacked context and could not be used to convict him.
Kem Sokha’s attorney, Meng Sopheary, told RFA’s Khmer Service that prosecutors at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court showed a two-minute clip of a video they say is proof that the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president colluded with the U.S. to try to overthrow Cambodia’s government.
“After watching the short video of Kem Sokha speaking during the trial, we can confirm that it was authentic, but it was edited and the original context is missing,” she said.
“[Kem Sokha] wants his original version of the video to be examined, which is about one hour long.”
The video cited as evidence by the court was recorded in 2013 and shows Kem Sokha 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 in 2017.
Meng Sopheary said that the court had accepted Kem Sokha’s video and will review it at some point during the trial, adding that she was given no indication of when the trial might end.
She said that the court had yet to question anyone summoned to give testimony in the case, but feels confident “the witnesses will speak the truth.”
In recent weeks, prosecutors have called nine witnesses ahead of Kem Sokha’s trial who observers say are either irrelevant to his case or part of a bid to undermine his character, including a land activist, the victim of a land dispute, activists from the CNRP, a ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesman, and an environmental campaigner.
Meng Sopheary said Kem Sokha continues to maintain his innocence and that her own study of his case shows “there is no evidence to convict my client.” The CNRP chief faces up to 30 years in prison if found guilty.
Government lawyer Ky Tech told RFA that there had been “heated exchanges” during Wednesday’s trial—where a total of 30 seats were largely reserved for diplomats, relatives, and CNRP members—but refused to provide details of what was discussed for “reasons of professionalism.”
He said that in addition to the U.S., Australia, Indonesia, Canada, the European Union, Taiwan, India, Yugoslavia, and Serbia are involved in the accusations against Kem Sokha, and that he has “tons of evidence” against the opposition leader. Ky Tech did not specify whether the court plans to summon representatives of those countries to appear at the trial.
Kem Sokha, 66, was arrested in September 2017 and charged with treason over the video. He maintains his innocence and his lawyers have said that prosecutors lack evidence to convict.
Two months after Kem Sokha’s arrest, 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 Prime Minister 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.
Following Wednesday’s proceedings, Kem Sokha posted a message to his Facebook account in which he said he “categorically den[ies] the charge of ‘conspiracy with foreign powers’ which was brought against me.”
He said he had not engaged with foreign state actors to “conduct hostility or [an] invasion” against Cambodia, and that he “did not commit anything of which I am accused”—particularly acts that would be detrimental to the national interest.
“All of my activities were focused on human rights and democracy, carried out in peaceful and non-violent manners in accordance with the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia,” he wrote, adding that his political activities “were focused on the participation in free, fair, and just elections that truly reflect the will of the Cambodian people.”
“I continue to demand that the court permanently drop the charge against me so that I can fully exercise my political freedom in participation in serving and defending the interests of the country and the people,” the message concluded.
Speaking to RFA on Wednesday, Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for local rights group Licadho, expressed frustration that nongovernmental organizations were not allowed into the courtroom, while only a few reporters were granted access, adding that authorities should have provided a live broadcast feed of the trial for members of the public to view.
“NGOs and the media want to monitor the case so they can see the evidence against [Kem Sokha] and listen to the debate to decide for themselves whether the court will provide justice or not,” he said.
Rong Chhun, a union leader and former member of Cambodia’s National Election Commission (NEC), told RFA he had traveled to the courthouse on Wednesday to monitor the trial but was forced to stand outside.
“This trial is just for show—we all know that this is a politically motivated case against Kem Sokha,” he said, calling on the court to drop the charges against the CNRP leader and for the reinstatement of the opposition party.
CNRP acting president Sam Rainsy also took to Facebook on Wednesday to call the trial a farce and accuse the court of acting as “Hun Sen’s puppet.”
“All democrats must condemn Hun Sen to show that the charges against Kem Sokha are groundless,” he wrote from self-imposed exile in Paris, France, where he has lived in 2015 to avoid a string of charges and convictions he says are politically motivated.
“There is only one solution: The court must drop charges against Kem Sokha. We don’t need the King [Norodom Sihamoni] to pardon him.”
The first day of Kem Sokha’s trial, which resumes Thursday, came as the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) issued a statement calling on Cambodian authorities to “immediately and unconditionally” drop the charges against him and restore his rights to movement and political participation.
“This farcical trial should be brought to an immediate end and the charges against him dropped,” Tom Villarin, former Member of the House of Representatives of the Philippines and APHR member, said in a statement, adding that Kem Sokha should be “provided access to justice and reparations for his unlawful detention.”
“Kem Sokha’s arrest and detention have been part of a much broader and sustained assault on the political opposition of Cambodia. This trial is a warning and reminder from the government to millions more politicians, activists, journalists and ordinary Cambodians that there is no space for human rights in today’s Cambodia.”
Villarin said that Cambodia’s courts routinely demonstrate that they act according to Hun Sen’s interests, rather than based on the facts and evidence presented to them.
“This lack of independence of the Cambodian judiciary and last minute restrictions placed by the court on trial monitors should raise serious concerns regarding Kem Sokha’s right to a fair trial,” he said.
APHR’s statement followed ones issued on the eve of the trial by New York-based Human Rights Watch and London-based Amnesty International, who said Cambodia should immediately drop “bogus” charges against Kem Sokha and suggested a conviction would ensure that Western governments sanction the country as part of a response to Hun Sen’s rollbacks on democracy and human rights.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.