The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday began the trial of former opposition leader Kem Sokha on a charge of treason, with rights groups and journalists barred from the proceedings and the government seeking the suppression of the names of foreign states allegedly involved.
Sokha was arrested in September 2017 amid government pressure on the political opposition, NGOs and news media, and charged with conspiracy with a foreign power for allegedly working with the U.S. to topple the government. He faces up to 30 years in prison if found guilty.
The court set up a registration process to select observers for the trial, but civil society officials and journalists were denied entry. Most available seats in the courtroom were given to foreign embassy officers. Reuters reported that “a few” reporters managed to enter the morning proceedings nevertheless.
According to lawyers, the first day focused on lawyers’ requests related to evidence as well as Sokha’s activities from 1993 to 2007.
Ky Tech, representing the government, said he and his colleagues had requested that the court refer to states involved in the case using letters rather than their names so as to not affect diplomatic relations.
Reuters reported that the case named the EU, USAID, U.S., Canada, U.S. President Donald Trump and Senator Ted Cruz, among others.
Pheng Heng, one of Sokha’s lawyers, said the court had decided to grant the request in its verdict announcement, but that hearings would use the countries’ names.
He added that prosecutors questioned his client over his activities between 1993 to 2007, but Heng would not elaborate.
Chan Chen, another Sokha lawyer, said the defense had requested that the full hourlong video of Sokha’s 2013 speech — the basis of the case against him — be shown in court instead of an edited two-minute clip. According to a government transcript of the edited video, Sokha said in the Melbourne speech that the U.S. had supported his political activities since 1993 and encouraged him to pursue grassroots support by establishing an NGO, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, in 2003.
Rights groups criticized the lack of direct monitoring permitted for the trial.
Adhoc spokesman Soeng Senkaruna said the show of force around the courthouse on Wednesday — with armed guards blocking people from entering the property — exemplified the clampdown on transparency.
“We also saw that journalists and civil society officers who work on human rights and democracy were banned from attending the trial,” Senkaruna said. “Banning from a trial at the court is a restriction against allowing the public to know whether the procedure of the trial was held with fairness and based on the law or not.”
“We are disappointed that the court did not provide the opportunity for us to join the trial,” Senkaruna added. “I hope the court will change its idea.”
Licadho monitoring manager Am Sam Ath said Sokha’s case was of national and international interest, and the court should allow journalists and civil society to observe what evidence is presented and how the hearings proceed.
“It is big case with a lot of interest, and the government or the court should find a hall or place that is larger and can allow many participants to attend,” Sam Ath said.
If there was no appropriate space, the court should broadcast the proceedings outside the courtroom to allow others to observe them, he said.
In a statement on Tuesday, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, called the court proceedings a “staged trial.”
“Sadly, there’s no hope Cambodia’s politically controlled judiciary will dare do anything to call into question the paucity of the prosecutors’ case or the sheer injustice of the proceedings,” Robertson said.
“The reality is Kem Sokha did nothing he should have been charged for and this entire pre-trial prison detention, house arrest and now trial has been a massive violation of his human rights.”