Former opposition leader Kem Sokha said at his trial on Thursday that his 2013 speech in Australia was an attempt to dispel a notion among overseas opposition supporters that he was a puppet of the ruling party.
During the day’s hearing, Presiding Judge Koy Sao allowed prosecutors to question Sokha about a video of the speech, which has been used to allege that the politician had conspired with the U.S. to overthrow the government. Government lawyers followed to question Sokha, before his own lawyers took their turn.
In a government transcript of the shortened video, Sokha appears to say that the U.S. has supported him since his entry to politics in 1993, and the U.S. advised him to drum up grassroots support in the model of the color revolution that toppled Yugoslavian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. The advice led him to establish the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) in 2002, he appears to say.
Deputy prosecutor Vong Bunvisoth asked Sokha a long list of questions about the video footage, focusing on Sokha’s use of the word “they.”
When Sokha said in his speech that “they” had invited him to the U.S., and “they” asked him to take the model of color revolution from Yugoslavia and Serbia, who was he referring to? Bunvisoth asked.
Sokha answered that the word “they” referred to the American people at times, and at other times to the U.S. government.
He added that he did not follow the model of Yugoslavia and Serbia because he did not want Khmer people to fight one another.
In Cambodia, regime change has historically meant bloodshed, Sokha said, pointing to the Lon Nol regime and Pol Pot regime.
He continued that if the prosecution took all the rhetoric of politicians as potentially incriminating, there would be many who should face imprisonment for talk about using bamboo sticks to beat people and break their teeth.
Under questioning from his own lawyers, Sokha said that the aim of his 2013 speech was firstly to thank Cambodian people living overseas who supported him. Secondly, he wanted to give a retort to accusations that he was a ruling party puppet amid negotiations at the time between the opposition CNRP and the ruling CPP, he said.
The CNRP, formed as a merger between Sokha’s Human Rights Party and co-founder Sam Rainsy’s Sam Rainsy Party, has been a frequently rocky marriage, with Sokha at times accused of being too friendly with the government.
“My intention was not to talk about using violence. I had no intention to talk about violence or color revolution,” he said.
Sokha added that his trips to the U.S. were only to learn about human rights and democracy, not color revolution or military strategy.
“Professors did not teach me about coups; they taught me human rights and democracy,” Sokha said.
Sokha is on trial for the charge of conspiracy with a foreign power, and faces up to 30 years in prison if found guilty.
Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager for rights group Licadho, said the government and Sokha’s lawyers seemed to still be far apart in their interpretations of the video. The trial would likely move on to witness testimonies next, he said.