Phnom Penh, Cambodia – More than two years after being arrested for treason, Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha will go on trial on Wednesday in advance of a crucial European Union decision on preferential trading rights that the grouping has threatened to withdraw over human rights abuses.
The president of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Kem Sokha, was arrested in the early hours of September 3, 2017, and later charged with treason; accused of collaborating with the United States to topple the Cambodian government of longtime ruler Hun Sen.
The arrest came as support for the CNRP surged among Cambodians, but the allegations stemmed from a speech the opposition leader had given in Australia in 2013 that had long been publicly available.
In the talk, he spoke of receiving US training on how to build grassroots support.
If found guilty, Kem Sokha faces as many as 30 years in prison.
“The charges against Sokha, namely the claim that he has ‘conspired with a foreign power’ to overthrow the government, has been rejected as baseless by pretty much anyone outside of the Cambodian government,” said Katrin Travouillon, a researcher at the Australian National University who has conducted extensive research on the Southeast Asian nation.
Hun Sen consolidated his hold on power following Kem Sokha’s arrest, dissolving the CNRP, banning its members from politics and prompting top-level opposition politicians to flee abroad. The governing Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all 125 seats up for grabs in the 2018 election, which observers said was a sham.
Kem Sokha himself was released into house arrest in late 2018, and freed in November last year. Shortly afterwards, a judge announced investigations had been concluded.
He remains banned from politics and is not allowed to travel abroad.
While the charges of treason have been largely condemned, Travouillon said, the case had become all about foreign influence and politics.
“There is a certain irony in that,” she said. “It is well-established that the Cambodian government controls the courts. Without a real case and without independent judges, this trial – should it come to that – will be a trial by proxy. It is not about the guilt or innocence of Kem Sokha, but about the future political course of the Cambodian government.”
The government has said it has no influence over the proceedings and that the judiciary is independent.
The court in Phnom Penh has said only 30 people will be allowed to watch the trial, which is scheduled to take place over two days from January 15, and must pre-register. Police and military police were deployed across the capital.
It is not clear when a verdict will be announced and it could be months before the decision is made.
“The authorities are clearly trying to limit scrutiny of this politically-motivated trial,” Amnesty International’s Regional Director Nicholas Bequelin said in a statement, accusing the government of “weaponising” the criminal justice system to eliminate the opposition.
“The gravity of these absurd accusations demands that the authorities uphold the highest standards of fairness and transparency, which requires holding a public hearing. It is essential that human rights monitors and journalists are given unhindered access to the trial.”
Hun Sen has been Cambodia’s prime minister since 1997 and is one of the world’s longest-serving leaders [File: Ou Neakiry/AP Photo]