The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on July 20 sent a letter reminding former opposition party leader Kem Sokha to respect the terms of his court-supervised bail after he made his first trip to the provinces since he was released from house arrest late last year.
During his tour earlier this month, the former leader of the now-dissolved CNRP visited provinces in the northwest and south of the country, with plans to visit northeastern provinces in the near future, according to those who traveled with him.
Former CNRP officials denied the trip had any political motives, while a Justice Ministry representative said it is up to the court to decide if Sokha had violated his relaxed bail conditions, which prevent him from engaging in political activity or leaving the country.
Municipal Court Presiding Judge Koy Sao issued a letter on July 20 reminding defendant Sokha to respect the terms of his court supervision.
“The panel of three judges has noticed that those activities may overstep or violate the court’s supervision,” Judge Koy Sao said in the order letter. Adding that defendant Sokha was placed under court supervision barring him from leaving Cambodia and from engaging in political activities.
“The panel of three judges would like to remind the defendant that he must thoroughly implement the court’s decision to place the defendant under supervision until the verdict is announced,” Judge Sao wrote.
Sokha, president of the main opposition CNRP — dissolved by Supreme Court order in 2017 — was charged with conspiring with a foreign power for allegedly working with the U.S. to overthrow the government. Sokha has maintained that he has only acted legitimately and transparently to try to win an election. The trial is ongoing at the municipal court.
The letter adds that the court-ordered supervision is in the interest of the defendant’s personal security and that following it will ensure the continuation of his trial in future.
Chan Chen, defense lawyer for Kem Sokha, acknowledged on July 21 that he had seen the letter from the court, calling it a threat to his client’s freedom of movement.
“This is a reminder letter but it is also a threat not to move forward with travel to other provinces,” he said.
“My client [Kem Sokha] clearly understands what he should do and what he shouldn’t,” Chen said, when asked if Sokha will continue with his plans, adding that his client will adhere to the law.
He said that during his recent travels, which Chen also took part in, Sokha had mostly held informal meetings, none of which violated the terms of his court-supervised bail.
“It was mostly visiting [members of the public] and it does not break the law or include activities the court has banned,” Chen said.
“[Kem Sokha’s] purpose is to understand agricultural products, farmers’ livelihoods during the Covid-19 situation,” he said, adding that Sokha enjoys discussing agriculture because he is also a farmer.
Chen said that during the trip, Sokha had also joined the ceremony for the anniversary of slain political analyst Kem Ley in Takeo province, visited Siem Reap province to learn about the impact the pandemic has had on tourism, and stopped to see a former CNRP party member in Banteay Meanchey province who is ill.
Chen added that the court had only banned Sokha from leaving the country and from engaging in political activity, “so, it is his right to do other activities.”
Former senior CNRP official Meach Sovannara, who also participated in the trip, said July 20 that Sokha had not engaged in political activity.
“He has just gone to visit [members of the public] to speak with them generally about their livelihoods,” Sovannara said, when asked if he is worried the government will accuse Sokha of engaging in a political activity.
He said Sokha had visited Kampong Cham, Tboung Khmum, Takeo, Pursat, Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, and Siem Reap, as well as Kampot, Kep, and Preah Sihanouk provinces. Former CNRP lawmaker Yem Ponhearith and several other former CNRP officials who have also been banned from political activity also participated in the tour.
He said that Sokha did not engage in political activities such as addressing activists or discussing democracy or the election process.
“He does not talk like that; he isn’t arranging gatherings to meet with activists,” Sovannara said.
Kem Sokha posted on his Facebook page on July 20 thanking his compatriots nationwide who had visited him since his bail restrictions were eased on November 10, and during his July trip.
“I still miss you, [I] want to meet, listen, and talk to all of you at any location as long as I have the opportunity to” read his post.
Sokha’s chief of staff, Muth Chantha, said that during his tour Sokha had not scheduled meetings, but merely held casual encounters with citizens.
“These interactions are person-to-person so we can visit people to ask about their daily lives related to business, so it is not a political issue,” he said.
Meanwhile, Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said that based on the law, the investigating judge is the only party that can determine whether Sokha’s activities had violated his bail conditions.
“It is based on the court to determine whether the action is a political activity that has violated court warrant or not,” he said. “So if it is a violation, they will follow the court procedure.”
Neither Malin nor spokesmen for the municipal court would elaborate on the procedures that would take place should Sokha violate his bail conditions.
Kuch Kimlong, the court spokesman for prosecutors, referred questions to the investigating judge.
Another court spokesman, Y Rin, declined to elaborate on the case and referred questions to the final closing order into the investigation of treason charges against Sokha issued by the court last year.
Political analyst Em Sovannara said July 20 said that allowing Sokha to travel domestically was an attempt by the ruling CPP to alleviate pressure from the international community, as the European Union is due to revoke part of its ‘Everything But Arms’ preferential tariffs scheme in August.
“I think that there might be internal negotiations with the ruling CPP wanting to ease tension from the international stage and the European Union,” he said.
Sokha’s recent activities appear to have been related to social affairs and humanitarian issues, he said.
“From my view, these activities do not amount to a political issue,” he said, adding that the current law does not clearly define what constitutes a political activity.
“I’m not entirely optimistic that the government will restore the political situation in Cambodia, and we will have to wait to see more progress,” Sovannara said.
Sok Eysan, spokesman for the ruling CPP, said that Sokha would violate the municipal court’s ban if he carries out a political campaign or talks about the election.
“He has not created any political propaganda, he has just hung outside visiting and talking with people, which is his right,” he said, referring to Sokha’s recent trip.
“Usually if we go out of the house, we will meet with people or eat food and talk with each other, so it is not related to politics,” Eysan said.
He added that the CPP does not care about the views of political analysts and said the government is not afraid of pressure from the international community.