A Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge on Wednesday questioned former opposition CNRP president Kem Sokha about a Serbia-based nonviolent political advocacy organization that the judge said instructed CNRP members in 2016 on how to overthrow the government.
Sokha, who was arrested five years ago for alleged treason, denied any involvement in the training. He has been on trial for treason since January 2020 in a case that has been repeatedly delayed, criticized by rights groups and Western governments, and has yet to call its first witnesses.
The former main opposition CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court in 2017, following government statements about an alleged “color revolution” conspiracy, perpetrated by the CNRP with foreign support, to unseat the long-ruling CPP.
In court on Wednesday, Judge Seng Leang centered his questioning of Sokha on the purpose of a training supported by the Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies, or Canvas, an organization which Leang said had trained 15 CNRP activists and officials in Indonesia in August 2016.
The prosecution showed a Canvas training slideshow with main points including creating a “vision of tomorrow”, new media propaganda and other strategies for nonviolent movements. The topics overlapped with teaching materials available on Canvas’s website.
Leang said Canvas’s lessons were adapted from “color revolutionary” strategies used in Serbia and the former Yugoslavia.
The judge read excerpts from training materials that included lessons on various forms of nonviolent political actions.
Leang asked Sokha if he had learned Canvas’s lessons and implemented them in Cambodia.
“I am not involved and never learned those lessons. I’m just seeing Canvas’s lessons during this trial,” Sokha replied.
He also denied being involved in any decision to send the 15 party members to the Canvas training.
“We are going to vote, not conduct a color revolution,” he added.
Emailed questions to Canvas went unanswered as of Thursday morning.
Canvas’s website says the organization was founded in 2005 to “advocate for the use of nonviolent resistance in the promotion of human rights and democracy,” and aims to “provide maximum support to the activists on the ground” through workshops, specialized courses, books and videos on nonviolent movements.
The organization says it has been active in 52 countries and “successfully trained” more than 16,000 activists.
A donation page says: “CANVAS is a non-profit institution which relies solely on private funding; there is no charge for workshops and revolutionary know-how can be downloaded for free on the Internet.”
In 2017, an anonymous Facebook account called “Kon Khmer” (or Khmer Child) posted unsubstantiated claims that the CNRP received $390,000 from Canvas in January 2015, the Phnom Penh Post reported at the time. Government-aligned media portal Fresh News republished its posts in full, putting forward the narrative of a foreign-backed conspiracy perpetrated by the CNRP.
On Wednesday, the court also played a six-minute video showing clips of ex-CNRP leaders Sam Rainsy, Eng Chhai Eang and Mu Sochua participating in a “Black Monday” campaign in 2016, which called for the release of an election official and four staffers from local rights group Adhoc who had been jailed in relation to a separate case involving Sokha.
“The color black is a symbol of darkness, related to human rights abuses, so together we can eliminate the power of the dictatorship,” said Rainsy, wearing a black T-shirt in the video.
Sokha told the court that former CNRP leaders participated in the campaign as individuals, not on behalf of the party.
‘“The party has no authority over Black Monday campaigning,” Sokha said.
Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator at Adhoc, who attended the hearing, said the Black Monday campaign had been launched by civil society organizations to call for the release of the five individuals and other activists who were detained in prison.
“It does not seem to involve politics,” he said. “The campaign clearly demanded to release the five, not to topple the government.”
Senkaruna said that workshops happen in every country, including for youth from any political party that needs training.
“After training, we did not see those youths leading demonstrations,” he said.
The trial is scheduled to continue on October 5.