At Sokha Trial, State Lawyers Suggest Foreigners Pushed CNRP Formation

6 min read
CNRP president Kem Sokha at his home in Phnom Penh on November 11, 2019. (Panha Chhorpoan/VOD)

Opposition leader Kem Sokha was again questioned in court on Wednesday about whether foreigners, including former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, mediated the merger of Sokha and Sam Rainsy’s past political parties to create the now-banned CNRP.

Sokha, who was in court for the eleventh day of his trial for allegedly conspiring with a foreign power, is accused of working with the U.S. to overthrow the Cambodian government. He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.

Rainsy, who co-founded the CNRP with Sokha, lives abroad to avoid a slew of criminal charges that he says are politically motivated.

Government attorney Ly Chantola on Wednesday asked Sokha about a 2010 meeting with Clinton. The lawyer cited a Phnom Penh Post article in which Sokha, then-head of the Human Rights Party (HRP), told the newspaper that Clinton had urged his party to merge with the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) during meetings with opposition leaders.

“Based on her experience, she said that to beat the ruling party the opposition parties should unite,” Sokha is quoted as saying.

But in court on Wednesday, Sokha said he didn’t recall meeting with the former U.S. first lady and presidential candidate. “As I remember, I had never met her,” he said.

Then-SRP lawmaker Son Chhay, who later joined the CNRP, told the Post in 2010 that after meeting with the opposition for about 40 minutes, Clinton had encouraged the parties to form a united political platform in order to compete with the ruling CPP.

“It is clearly written,” Chantola said in court, holding up a printout of the November 2, 2010 article from the Post. “I just want to know whether you are speaking honestly,” he said, addressing Sokha.

Sokha said he would respond to the lawyer once the news article had been formally submitted as evidence to the court. His defense team has repeatedly noted a lack of access to evidence produced by prosecutors and government lawyers, with both sides questioning the authenticity of documents.

The last hearing on February 13 ended with Sokha’s attorneys walking out of the courtroom before the hearing finished after the judge interrupted them during a tense argument over evidence. The judge then postponed the proceedings for two weeks.

Back in court on Wednesday, deputy prosecutor Vong Bunvisoth suggested that a former U.S. official and head of a U.S. democracy-building NGO acted as middlemen to facilitate the formation of the CNRP. The party was founded in 2012 and dissolved by court order in 2017, two months after Sokha was arrested and jailed on treason charges.

Bunvisoth asked Sokha whether former U.S. State Department official Daniel Baer, who served as U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor from 2009 to 2013, put pressure on him to found the CNRP.

Sokha replied that he had already answered the question in previous hearings.

“Everything I have done is in line with the law, democracy, human rights, national and international laws, and in line with benefits to the people,” he said.

During a hearing earlier this month, government lawyer Sann Chuoy asked Sokha about a meeting with Baer at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, which Sokha said he believed happened before the 2012 commune elections.

“I already stated that [Baer] asked about the situation around the elections,” Sokha said on February 5. “I asked [U.S. officials] to help through their election monitors,” and with other election programs, like organizing political debates, he added.

Bunvisoth, the prosecutor, on Wednesday asked Sokha about who helped find a compromise if there were differences between the HRP and SRP before the parties reached the agreement to merge.

“There was no foreigner to come and help. We worked based on the will of the two parties and the will of the people,” Sokha said, repeating a similar response to similar questions asked during earlier hearings.

Since the trial began in mid-January, government attorneys have frequently questioned Sokha about his political and NGO activities dating back nearly two decades, and in particular what support he received from U.S. democracy-building organizations, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and International Republican Institute (IRI).

Citing Koun Khmer, a Facebook page known for leaking information critical of the CNRP, Bunvisoth on Wednesday asked Sokha if former IRI country director Jackson Cox helped in “coordinating between your party and the Sam Rainsy Party?”

The politician refused to answer, again taking issue with the credibility of the Koun Khmer page and its anonymous owner.

“It is not real information so I will not answer. Please call Koun Khmer to come. What was the source of this information? I can file a countersuit,” Sokha said.

“If you refuse to answer, it means that it is true,” Bunvisoth replied.

“Please judges, look at this. This is a kind of assumption,” Sokha answered back.

During the February 5 hearing, Bunvisoth showed a photo of Cox and one of Sokha’s daughters. The prosecutor alleged that Cox offered to help send her to study in the U.S.

Sokha didn’t address the claim, and instead questioned the source of the photo, calling the Facebook page “100 percent exaggerated.”

On Wednesday, Bunvisoth also asked Sokha detailed questions about the HRP and SRP’s merger negotiations in Manila in 2012. Sokha suggested that the deputy prosecutor review the content of a joint statement issued at the time to announce the two parties’ union.

The statement notes that the CNRP will encourage a close relationship between top officials and commune councilors, and a nonviolent, democratic election. It also urges the Cambodian government to stop using the judicial system to suppress political freedom. 

Bunvisoth then asked whether the statement’s content came from Sokha or Rainsy, and how different the two parties’ policies and strategy were.

“In general, we have clear principles,” Sokha said. “The policy of the CNRP is nonviolence. That is the main point.”

Bunvisoth asked Sokha if there was “any foreign agent” helping the parties compromise.

“Our policy and strategy was created by Cambodians,” Sokha replied. “If there is a foreigner, please show him.”

Deputy prosecutor Plang Sophal raised questions to Sokha about the CNRP’s mission, including rescuing the country, preserving democracy and preventing foreign invasion.

“Why did you say this?” Sophal asked.

“This is the political vision. One believed that the country has this issue and that issue,” Sokha answered.

“Why did you say that the country is currently facing disaster?” Sophal said.

“This is the vision. How can you not allow people to have their views?” Sokha replied.

Early in the hearing, defense lawyer Ang Udom asked Presiding Judge Koy Sao to reject 1,192 pages of evidence from consideration, since the defense team had not received the documents at the beginning of the trial.

Udom said there was no equality before the law and the irregularity in access to evidence threatened Sokha’s right to a fair trial.

However, Sao said it was not a judge’s job to find documents for the defense attorneys, and that they should attain the evidence for themselves going forward. The judge said he would not allow the defense lawyers to raise issues about missing evidence again.

“If you raise the same issue about documents, I will chase you out of the courtroom,” Sao said.

The trial resumes on Thursday.

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