Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Jan 30 Fixed For Kem Sokha’s Appeal As Civil Societies Hope For Political Space Restoration

Kem Sokha leaves his house to hear his verdict on March 3, 2023. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
Kem Sokha leaves his house to hear his verdict on March 3, 2023. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

The Court of Appeal will hear former opposition leader Kem Sokha’s appeal against his treason conviction this January 30, as civil societies call on the new government to restore the political situation and human rights in the country.

Court spokesperson Khun Leang Meng confirmed with CamboJA that the hearing will be conducted on the date, adding that court summons have been sent out to relevant parties.

Sokha, 71, was found to have committed treason in September 2017 for allegedly colluding with the US. He is said to have been an agent in a so-called color revolution to overthrow the government. On March 3, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court handed down a 27-year jail sentence and banned him from doing politics for life. He was also barred from communicating with anyone without court permission besides his family members. 

Lawyer Pheng Heng, who worked on Sokha’s case in the lower court, said he was aware of the appeal date but has yet to receive a request from his client to represent him. Heng said a defendant can retain the same lawyer or find a new one when the case goes on appeal.

“[We] have finished our work at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court … since the verdict, we have not received a request [from Sokha] to represent his case,” he added. “Even though he needs a lawyer, we don’t know how to access that request.”

Under normal circumstances, a convicted person is allowed to meet with their lawyer or the latter can meet the defendant to discuss their appeal, but in Sokha’s case, the ex-CNRP leader is banned from meeting other people besides his relatives.

Ky Tech, a government lawyer representative, mentioned that he has received word about the hearing but declined to comment further. “We can’t speak in advance about the work of a lawyer,” he said.

Ruling CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan declined to comment on the details of the appeal, stressing that that is under the jurisdiction of the court.

“Do not ask government or party spokespersons to comment, as they [public] will accuse the [executive] of meddling in court procedures. So, I have no comment,” he told CamboJA.

NGO rights group Adhoc president Ny Sokha expressed concern that the political situation is in limbo amid the Court of Appeal hearing on Kem Sokha’s treason case.

“Based on our observation of political cases, we don’t place much hope on [the verdict] overturning in the Appeals Court,” he said. “Owing to that, we don’t [expect] to see much development in the political situation.

“Until now we haven’t seen any progress in the issues we are concerned about; no opposition party leaders have been released or [had their] charges dropped,” Ny Sokha said.

He noticed that the country’s political situation has become worse with declining human rights since the dissolution of opposition party CNRP in 2017 and a rise in the persecution of politicians, political party supporters and environmental activists.

This includes the imprisonment of Cambodian-American lawyer and human rights advocate Seng Theary who was convicted in June 2022, with several other ex-CNRP leaders for plotting and inciting people to overthrow the government.

“We think that [with] the new Prime Minister [Hun Manet] in office, it would be good if he could improve the political situation in Cambodia,” he said.

Ou Chanrath, vice president of Cambodia Reform Party and a member of Alliance Towards the Future Forward hopes that Hun Manet would improve the political and human rights situation which remains at stake.

“We have problems related to declining democracy and human rights violations,” he said. While the world can see that “we have [political] problems, we can’t see them ourselves”.

“Although we know that the new government has a commitment to restore democracy and human rights, nothing has changed,” he said. “I don’t have much hope for any change in 2024 or 2025.”

That said, he urged the court and government to drop the charges against Kem Sokha in order to achieve national reconciliation as well as restore democracy and human rights.

Meanwhile, government spokesperson Pen Bona said the concerns raised by the civil society regarding the political situation does not reflect the reality of the country, which is peaceful.

“Cambodia’s situation, good or bad, is not based on what few people are saying,” he said, adding that Cambodians as a nation are living peaceful lives while the economy grows.

“This is a reality that everyone sees with their eyes, unlike the words of a small number of civil society groups. As for legal measures, they must be taken against those who have broken the law,” Bona said.