Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha’s legal team on Tuesday called on the court overseeing his case to drop treason charges against him in the interest of fostering dialogue and national reconciliation amid political tensions in the country.
In a formal request, the lawyers appealed to Phnom Penh Municipal Court investigative judge Khy Rithy to “drop all charges against His Excellency Kem Sokha so he can enjoy his full freedom” and return to his role as the president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
“To drop charges against Kem Sokha will contribute to national reconciliation and allow politicians to start dialogue for the good of the national interest and Cambodia’s reputation,” the letter said.
In an accompanying statement, the lawyers said that a video recorded in 2013 in which Kem Sokha discusses a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts is insufficient evidence to prove he had collaborated with a foreign nation to try to topple the government.
“The investigating judge conducted a two-year investigation, but there is no evidence to implicate even a single foreigner linked to acts of treason,” they said, noting that two years is the maximum time allowed by Cambodian law for such a probe.
Kem Sokha’s lawyer, Pheng Heng, refused to comment on the statement when contacted by RFA’s Khmer Service, and Khy Rithy was unavailable to respond to the appeal at the time of publishing.
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.
The U.S. Embassy rejected any suggestion that Washington was interfering in Cambodian politics at the time of Kem Sokha’s arrest, and the former CNRP president has said that his statement in the 2013 video “was merely an educational speech on the appreciation of human rights and democracy,” adding that he believes his arrest and the dissolution of his party were politically motivated.
Western governments and rights groups have called the charges against Kem Sokha unsubstantiated and urged that his case be dropped, while the EU has highlighted his case as an example of the government’s infringements on political rights that could lead to the withdrawal of Cambodia’s tariff-free access to the bloc’s markets under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme for developing nations, currently under review.
Last week, in a letter sent to Kem Sokha’s lawyers, Ky Rithy said he had “decided to close the investigation” into the case, without providing further details, including if or when it will go to trial.
On Monday, however, Hun Sen made it clear that Kem Sokha’s case is going to trial, despite rumors that he could be freed at the behest of King Norodom Sihamoni.
The developments on Kem Sokha’s case came days after acting CNRP chief Sam Rainsy had attempted to return to Cambodia from self-imposed exile to lead a restoration of democracy in the country through nonviolent protest but was blocked from doing so and forced instead to visit Malaysia and Indonesia, where he met with other CNRP officials to discuss next steps before returning to Paris, France.
The CNRP had called on migrant workers, particularly in Thailand, to meet with Sam Rainsy on Nov. 9 as part of a bid to shield him from arrest in Cambodia, where he faces a string of charges and convictions he says are politically motivated, including allegations of “plotting a coup” in connection with his planned return.
On Tuesday, ahead of his planned Nov. 24 trip to South Korea, Hun Sen threatened to invalidate the contracts of Cambodian migrant workers in the country, accusing them of backing Sam Rainsy’s return and failing to appreciate what his administration had done for them.
“It is not difficult—I will hold a meeting with the South Korean President [Moon Jae-in] to invalidate [the existing contracts] and South Korea will return the migrant workers back to Cambodia,” he said.
“This is a just a thought. But if we want to win this [over the issue of migrant workers], those who will be negatively affected are the Cambodians. I don’t understand why some people are using the migrant worker issue to say that the Cambodian government is incapable of resolving domestic unemployment.”
A migrant worker in South Korea named Prumh Rath told RFA that Hun Sen would not dare revoke the contracts of Cambodians in the country, adding that he had endured many hardships to find a job there.
“Hun Sen shouldn’t be proud of sending workers to work overseas,” he said.
“It is shameful that Cambodia’s neighbors are able to provide enough jobs for their citizens.”
A migrant worker in Thailand named Sokhom echoed Prumh Rath’s frustration that she was unable to make a living in her own country, saying that she incurred many costs and endured abuse while laboring abroad for the last two decades because she could not earn enough at home through farming.
“Hun Sen doesn’t think about the workers—only how he can benefit and maintain power,” she said.
“The things he says are making us even angrier about his rule—we spent a lot of money to get these jobs.”
Khun Tharo, the program coordinator for Cambodia’s Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, told RFA that it is the duty of the government to seek ways to provide employment for its citizens, and said members of the public have the right to express their own opinions about the country’s leadership.
“The government should not react to the people, but instead try to resolve its many issues through embassies overseas to help the workers,” he said, adding that Hun Sen is losing support from migrant workers because they learn about how true democracy functions when they are based abroad.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.