Cambodia’s Kem Sokha stands trial


Thu, Jan 16, 2020 - Page 5

The treason trial of Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha opened yesterday, more than two years after his arrest in a case decried by his family as a “farce” and described by the US as politically motivated.

The 66-year-old cofounded the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party, once considered the sole opponent to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party led by Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 35 years.

Kem Sokha was arrested in 2017 and his party dissolved ahead of widely criticized elections the following year — leaving the Cambodian People’s Party to canter to victory virtually uncontested.

The opposition leader was first detained in a remote prison and then placed under house arrest before his bail conditions were relaxed in November last year.

“I haven’t committed any acts ... detrimental to national interests,” Kem Sokha said in a statement posted on Facebook as the court sat. “My political activities were focused on the participation in free, fair and just elections.”

He stands accused of conspiring in a “secret plan” with foreign entities to overthrow the government, court documents showed — charges he denies.

If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison.

Police yesterday surrounded the Phnom Penh Municipal Court as Kem Sokha arrived for hearings.

Reporters and human rights monitors were barred from entering the court, with the limited seating reserved for foreign diplomats and relatives.

Kem Sokha’s daughter, Kem Monovithya, yesterday decried the proceedings.

“This whole ordeal is a farce,” she said. “It is damaging to Cambodia’s image. We hope he will be acquitted, so Cambodia can begin to get back on a democratic path.”

Amnesty International called the trial “a mockery of justice,” while the US Department of State has said that the charges “appear to be politically motivated.”

Concerns over human rights has pushed the EU to review whether Cambodia should be withdrawn from a tariff and duty-free scheme. If axed, it could deal a blow worth billions to the kingdom’s lucrative garment sector.

While preferential access to Western markets is crucial for some sectors, the kingdom’s economy has been pumped up on Chinese investment and soft loans, which are delivered without questions over rights and democracy.

To relieve international pressure, the government might reach for a compromise to the Kem Sokha issue, said Ou Virak, director of Phnom Penh-based think tank Future Forum and former chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

This could come in the form of a royal pardon if Kem Sokha is convicted, he said.