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Kem Sokha Trial Hears Closing Arguments, Verdict Set for March 3

Kem Sokha leaves the Phnom Penh Municipal Court after listening to the morning session of closing remarks on December 21, 2022. CamboJA/Pring Samrang
Kem Sokha leaves the Phnom Penh Municipal Court after listening to the morning session of closing remarks on December 21, 2022. CamboJA/Pring Samrang

After a 13-hour marathon court session lasting into the night, former opposition leader Kem Sokha’s three-year long treason trial finished closing arguments on Wednesday in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court. 

A verdict is scheduled to be announced on March 3 next year.

While Sokha and his lawyers denied all charges and argued the case against him was baseless and politically motivated, government lawyers and prosecutors maintained he was involved in a long-running scheme of foreign interference to overthrow the government. 

Sokha, ex-president of the outlawed opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, was arrested in 2017 on charges of treason for allegedly colluding with foreign powers against the government. The CNRP was disbanded by the Supreme Court two months later.

Prosecutors claimed in their closing statements that Sokha had reached a “secret agreement with a foreign state” to “foment hostilities” between 1993 and 2017

“The prosecutor has asked judges to deliver a very serious penalty [against] the defendant because it [his actions are] a felony, a betrayal of the nation,” said deputy prosecutor Plang Sophal. He asked the judge to “strip [Sokha] of the rights to do politics ever again.” 

Sophal cited as evidence of Sokha’s treasonous activities slogans such as “[Prime Minister] Hun Sen step down” and “no risk, no change” during mass street demonstrations during the 2013 elections, when protestors called for an independent committee to investigate irregularities in election results. 

“The defendant Kem Sokha followed foreigners’ orders,” Sophal said. 

Prosecutors had previously cited as evidence trainings CNRP activists allegedly received from Serbian and American NGOs. In their closing arguments, they claimed Sokha’s founding of the NGO Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) and later the 2012 merger of his Human Rights Party with the other leading opposition party, the Sam Rainsy Party, were the result of foreign interference. 

Kem Sokha’s supporters gather in front of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on December 21, 2022. CamboJA/Pring Samrang

Sophal argued Sokha had fomented hostilities during a 2014 demonstration in Stung Meanchey where four people died after crowds burned military vehicles. He also cited the Black Monday campaign to release five jailed human rights defenders.

Government lawyer Ky Tech said that the defendant Kem Sokha mobilized “people power” and the mass demonstrations demanding election results were a pretext to overthrow the government in a so-called foreign-led “color revolution.”

“Foreign have been inferred from the internal affairs of the former CNRP,” he said. He called the defendant Kem Sokha as “he has Khmer body but his head as foreign,” echoing a mantra used by the Khmer Rouge.  

Outside the court, Tech told reporters that the government would file a civil lawsuit “to demand compensation” from Sokha as a result of demonstrations led by former CNRP leaders which allegedly caused damage to state and private properties. 

“But I can’t tell reporters yet how much it [the compensation] is,” Tech said. 

Taking the stand, Sokha denied he had committed any crimes and urged the judge to drop all charges against him.

“I ask the court to acquit all charges and let me have the right to freedom so that I can serve the national and Khmer people,” he said. “I have had no intention to commit what they have charged me with.”

His defense lawyers submitted a 53-page statement to the court and spent much of their five hour long remarks to make the case that out of context and edited video clips were manipulatively used as evidence to falsely convey the impression that Sokha sought to topple the government. 

“I can say it was fake evidence,” said Sokha’s defense lawyer Ang Udom. 

“The evidence they seized, such as his Khmer ID card, phone, bank credit card, do not indicate a red-handed crime to collude with foreign powers,” he said.

Defense lawyers claimed that their client only participated in a peaceful mass demonstration at Freedom Park in 2013 and was not involved in demonstrations which led to property damage or violence.

“It is an entirely politically motivated case, let it be for politicians to resolve this case,” Udom said. 

Soeng Senkaruna, a senior investigator at rights group Adhoc who attended the hearings, said most of the evidence appeared to have come from government-aligned media outlet Fresh News and was merely propaganda. 

“Kem Sokha will be acquitted of the charges if the court makes a fair decision because there is not enough evidence against Kem Sokha” he said. But “if the court is under political pressure, Kem Sokha cannot be freed.” 

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