Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

US ambassador speaks out against ‘fabricated conspiracy theories’ in Kem Sokha case

US Ambassador Patrick Murphy speaks to journalists outside Phnom Penh court on March 12, 2020. Panha Chhorpoan

U.S. Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy attended the trial of opposition leader Kem Sokha in Phnom Penh on Thursday and told reporters outside the court that he was troubled by “fabricated conspiracy theories” involving the U.S.

Murphy attended the hearing at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for about 15 minutes before speaking to reporters outside. Sokha, who was arrested in September 2017, has been on trial since January.

Murphy said the U.S. was watching the trial closely, as it had potential implications for Cambodia’s rule of law as well as international relations.

At the center of the treason case against Sokha — for which he faces up to 30 years in prison — is a video of a speech he made in Melbourne in 2013. In it, he appears to say that the U.S. has supported him since his foray into politics to work to change the country’s leadership.

Prosecutors have probed the foreign financial backing Sokha received for his NGO, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, as well as his political parties, accusing him of receiving foreign aid to try to overthrow the government. Sokha has countered that all funding was transparent and that he has only worked to peacefully and legally contest elections.

On Thursday, Murphy said the U.S. had provided support to political parties, but that it was transparent and given to all parties.

“Here is the truth: The United States has contributed almost $3 billion in recent decades in assistance to Cambodia, including transparent assistance to strengthen institutions and political parties in line with Cambodia’s Constitution,” Murphy said.

The ruling CPP as well as government institutions had been beneficiaries of the support, he said.

“We’re troubled to see prosecutors introduce fabricated conspiracy theories about the United States,” he said.

A press release issued on Thursday by the court’s prosecutors said the U.S. had not been accused in the case. Sokha was charged for conspiracy with a foreign power, but “the prosecutor has not charged the United States, which is a foreign power, or any foreign agents yet. The prosecutor has charged only defendant Kem Sokha.”

Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin echoed the statement, saying that no accusations had been leveled against the U.S.

“Maybe it confused the translator when translating for [Murphy] because the court did not accuse the U.S. as being involved with this case,” Malin said. “Generally, Cambodia still has good cooperation with the United States.”

In court on Thursday, questioning focused on U.S.-based democracy-building nonprofit the International Republican Institute (IRI), and whether it had supported Sokha’s opposition CNRP.

Under questioning by deputy prosecutor Vong Bunvisoth, Sokha told the court that IRI had trained youth for all political parties, including the CNRP and CPP.

The CNRP, which pushed the ruling CPP to near-defeat in the 2013 national election, was dissolved eight months ahead of the 2018 vote in the wake of Sokha’s arrest. The U.S. has criticized the 2018 election as neither free nor fair, while the EU has announced it is partially suspending duty-free trade with Cambodia over violations of political and human rights.