In a long day that had been postponed nearly two years, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday resumed hearing treason charges against former CNRP leader Kem Sokha.
The case against the long-time opposition figure had been suspended since March 2020, paused amidst the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the court’s normal functions have resumed for months now, including the initiation of new trials against rights activists and Sokha’s fellow members of the banished CNRP opposition.
Before heading to attend Wednesday’s trial, Sokha briefly spoke to reporters at his home in the capital’s Toul Kork district. He said he was happy to resume the trial and hoped the court would drop all charges against him.
“Today, I have my long-awaited day for the trial to resume and to put an end to all these issues,” Sokha told reporters.
“I hope that today, the court will decide to drop the charge against me, for our Cambodia to move forward to have a national reconciliation, and for national unity to develop our country together.”
About 50 people registered to listen to his trial but only 28 people were allowed in the courtroom due to COVID-19 measures. The rest were not allowed, including journalists and civil society members.
The three-hour hearing focused mainly on procedure, according to Sokha’s lawyer Chan Chen, who briefed reporters after the hearing.
He said the court also displayed video footage of Sokha in a meeting in Australia, which prosecutors are citing as evidence for the treason charges.
“The full video footage that we had seen, that isn’t a case of colluding with foreigners or using violence and toppling [government]” Chen said, adding that Sokha had gone to Australia to thank people there for disaster relief during a period of flooding in Cambodia.
Chen also said that Sokha had told the court he respected the government measures to handle COVID-19, and intended to follow court procedure, but also wanted the court to speed up its proceedings and conduct them with fairness and transparency.
“For four years, the arrest of our client has impacted the interests of the client, especially citizen rights and political rights,” Chen said of Sokha.
Chen said he still believes the case against the opposition figure is politically motivated and should be resolved through political means, not legal ones.
Ky Tech, the state lawyer representative, said the prosecutor replied to Sokha that procedure dictates a case will continue until the defendant dies, the court reaches a verdict, or when the accused confesses.
“If the accused person has admitted the offense of what he has committed, and he confessed to be guilty, the case will be completed,” Tech said.
Sokha was arrested September 3, 2017, and charged with conspiring with a foreign power. The state has accused him of working with the US to attempt a so-called color revolution to overthrow the government of the ruling CPP.
Sokha has maintained that he has only acted legitimately and transparently to try to win an election.
The CNRP was dissolved in 2017 by the Supreme Court, with scores of party members arrested on what are widely believed to be politically motivated charges. Its top leaders went into exile and more than 100 members were barred from political participation for five years.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of the rights group Licadho, attended the Wednesday hearing. He said the event focused mainly on proceedings rather than interrogating the treason charges against Sokha.
“We saw that the case is very complicated, as we have known the case is politically motivated, so the resolution is to have political negotiation,” he said.
He said that the case can be put an end as soon as possible through political dialogue, but it has to follow the court proceedings. He speculated that could take a long time, and would likely prevent Sokha from participating in the commune council election later this year.
Phil Roberson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said in a Tuesday statement that the resumption of Sokha’s trial after an almost two-year hiatus doesn’t alter the fact that these “bogus, politically motivated charges” should have never been brought against him in the first place.
“This whole charade has been about preventing anyone from using the ballot box to meaningfully contest Hun Sen’s leadership,” Robertson stated.
“Sadly, it seems the best that Kem Sokha can hope for is a quick pardon from Hun Sen following what will be the inevitable conviction at the end of this already torturously long trial.”
The trial will resume next week, on January 25.