After a long delay, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has set a date to resume the hearing of treason charges against former opposition leader Kem Sokha.
The case has been suspended since March 2020, 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.
Civil society groups say the abrupt resumption of Sokha’s trial is due to international pressure. Both court spokesman Y Rin and Sokha’s defence lawyer Chan Chen both confirmed on Tuesday that the trial will resume on January 19, 2022.
“Our co-lawyers are ready to attend the trial,” Chen said.
“As we have mentioned before, this case is politically motivated, and it should be settled through a political way. We believe our citizens can talk between Khmer and Khmer,” he added, declining further comment.
Sokha’s lawyers have filed motions to drop the case but received no response from the court. Sokha, who was president of the CNRP, was arrested September 3, 2017, and charged with conspiring with a foreign power for allegedly 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.
The postponed case against Sokha has drawn concerns from civil society groups and political analysts who say the legal wrangling is part of a strategy to drive a wedge dividing CNRP leadership.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of the rights group Licadho, said that Sokha’s resumed trial is due to international pressure, particularly as Cambodia assumes the chairmanship for ASEAN for 2022. Sam Ath predicted that the government would rationalize its position as stating it cannot interfere in the affairs of the court as it proceeds through the case.
“We have seen our Cambodia issues [play out as] a controversial political crisis and human rights issues,” he said. “I think politicians should resolve [political issues] based on the principles of solidarity and national unity to ensure the restoration of democracy and respect for human rights.”
Pa Chanroeun, president of the Cambodian Institute for Democracy, echoed that Cambodia has faced mounting pressure since the dissolution of the CNRP, its main opposition party.
“Cambodia’s efforts to clean up negative issues, including to reduce domestic political tension, will not impact its ASEAN chairmanship next year,” he said, though he suggested the resumption of Sokha’s trial is due partly to the chairmanship and upcoming commune council elections.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin denied that Sokha’s resumed trial is not politically motivated.
“Resuming the case of Kem Sokha is entirely practical under the law,” he said.
Last week, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court resumed trials involving more than 130 former CNRP party members and activists charged with plotting and incitement to cause social chaos in connection to the unsuccessful attempt to return of opposition leader Sam Rainsy on November 9, 2019.
The mass trials had also been delayed for several months due to the pandemic.
Defence lawyer Sam Sokhong said the court has scheduled a hearing every Tuesday and Thursday to handle the plotting charges.
“We have seen the court resume its trials ahead of the upcoming election,” he said.