Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Former Staff, Current Head of Rights Group Testify in Kem Sokha Case

Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, arrives at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on October 12, 2022. CamboJA/Pring Samrang
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, arrives at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on October 12, 2022. CamboJA/Pring Samrang

A ruling CPP official who once worked under Kem Sokha at the Cambodian Center for Human Rights said in court Wednesday that CCHR had previously refused foreign funding, except from a U.S. government-funded nonprofit that officials have tied to an alleged “color revolution” plot.

Sokha, the former president of the outlawed main opposition CNRP, is on trial for alleged treason following his September 2017 arrest in a case that has been repeatedly criticized by human rights groups and Western governments.

The CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court two months after Sokha’s arrest, following government statements about an alleged “color revolution” conspiracy,  perpetrated by the CNRP with foreign support, to unseat the long-ruling CPP.

During Wednesday’s hearing at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, prosecutors questioned former CCHR staffer Chhim Phal Virun, now a ruling party spokesperson and adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, about foreign funding supporting the establishment of CCHR, which was founded by Sokha prior to his entry into politics.

Deputy prosecutor Chhay Hong asked Phal Virun about $800,000 in funding provided by U.S. democracy-promoting nonprofit International Republican Institute to found CCHR in 2002.

Phal Virun told the court that CCHR only received funds from IRI, and had refused other foreign funding, including from Germany.

With IRI assistance, no other organizations could interfere or cooperate with CCHR, he claimed.

“I had seen that the nature of the leaders of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights was to favor foreigners, and [they] seemed like foreign agents rather than a local organization,” Phal Virun said.

He said that Sokha had often referred to popular revolutions in the former Yugoslavia and Serbia and told colleagues, “If you do not take risks, there will not be change.”

“He was always encouraging volunteer staff not to be afraid because we had foreigners behind us,” Phal Virun said.

Chhim Phal Virun, an adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen, arrives at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on October 12, 2022. CamboJA/Pring Samrang

Furthermore, the official said Sokha had met with Americans about IRI.

“Kem Sokha had a secret meeting with foreigners,” he claimed, adding that Sokha had not shared information about IRI funding and projects with him, even though Phal Virun had been in charge of CCHR’s human rights and education sections.

Since 1983, IRI has worked in more than 100 countries to “strengthen civil society, political parties, marginalized communities, and other key areas essential to democratic governance,” according to its website.

Sokha has denied the treason charges against him, saying the CNRP’s aim was to win democratic elections.

Prosecutors on Wednesday also questioned Chak Sopheap, CCHR’s current executive director, over the organization’s funding sources, including funds from IRI.

CCHR received funding from multiple sources, including foreign embassies, Sopheap said, adding that the organization’s donors were listed on CCHR’s website. She said IRI stopped providing funds more than a decade ago. 

Sopheap refused to answer when a prosecutor asked her to respond to Phal Virun’s claim that CCHR had only received IRI funds and ignored other donors.

“I will not respond to previous testimony,” she said.

CCHR’s website lists the organization’s current and past donors. IRI is not listed as a past donor.

“CCHR has worked hard to encourage support from a broad range of donors and supporters for both long-term projects, and short-term [projects],” the website says.

The court also questioned activists who had attended a 2016 nonviolent political advocacy training for CNRP officials and activists in Indonesia, which was the subject of court questioning last month.

Three activists on Wednesday denied the training had instructed participants in how to overthrow the government. 

“The training was related to elections and the monitoring of elections,” said Keo Srey Neang, an activist from the Social Breaking News advocacy group.

The questioning of witnesses was continuing on Thursday.