The Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Wednesday again pushed back a trial against nine leaders of the dissolved main opposition party, as the defendants, who are overseas, called for their Cambodian passports to be returned so they can attend.
Presiding Judge Duch Sok Sarin set a new date for the trial on December 15 after defense lawyer Sam Sokong was absent from Wednesday’s hearing. Sokong later said that he had filed change of address submissions for the defendants so they could be properly summoned, and that it was agreed that in that case the hearing would be postponed.
Security and health measures were tightened up both inside and outside the court on Wednesday, with temperature checks, hand sanitizers and social distancing implemented in the courthouse. Nine leaders of the CNRP, controversially dissolved in 2017, were charged with an attempted attack, which carries a jail term of up to 30 years.
In the 35-minute hearing, Phnom Penh Municipal Court deputy prosecutor Seng Heang asked the presiding judge to proceed with the trial, arguing that summons procedures had been properly conducted.
The stated addresses of the accused were recorded as being in Phnom Penh through all earlier stages of the investigation and judicial proceedings, and the defendants had not made any previous attempt to change them, Heang said.
The defense was simply trying to avoid the trial by now submitting changes of address, he argued.
“I would like to reject [the submissions] and this shows that he has ill intentions,” Heang said. “Please, presiding judge, consider this of the defense lawyer.”
Heang asked that the trial proceed next time even without the defense lawyer’s attendance.
Government lawyer Suong Chanthan also asked the presiding judge to go ahead with the trial, saying fleeing the country was a personal matter of the accused.
“We welcome their attendance and we do not prohibit their rights,” Chanthan said.
Kao Seyha, a lawyer assigned by the Bar Association to help the defense, also criticized Sokong’s absence as contributing to a pile up of court cases.
“It affects me also, and what he did has affected professionalism,” Seyha said. “I, alone, also have enough ability to defend the nine.”
Judge Sok Sarin nevertheless postponed the trial, echoing his earlier delay from November 11 to Wednesday to allow defendants to attempt to return to the country.
“I will make a report to the Bar Association about the absence of lawyer Sam Sokong,” Sok Sarin added.
Speaking by phone, defense lawyer Sokong said he had not received an order to attend on Wednesday. During the November 11 hearing, the presiding judge gave him the option that if he submitted new addresses for his clients, the court would not conduct a hearing on November 25.
“I submitted the addresses of my clients last week. So I thought today was not necessary,” he said.
Cambodia’s Criminal Procedure Code requires that summonses be sent to defendants’ last given address. But authorities instead posted notices to the abandoned headquarters of the CNRP.
Sokong argued this was improper, and he expected the courts to summon the defendants at the new addresses supplied, in France and the U.S.
In a video posted to Twitter, CNRP vice president Mu Sochua, one of the nine defendants, said she wanted to attend.
“Yes, we want to stand trial in Cambodia but we need our passports — our Cambodian passports,” she said. “The Cambodian Embassy in Washington D.C. closed its doors on us when we tried to get our passports.”
“The Cambodian government is obstructing the official proceedings of justice. We want a fair trial.”
In addition to Sochua, the defendants include CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy, co-vice president Eng Chhai Eang; former National Assembly member and Rainsy’s wife Tioulong Saumura; and former lawmakers Ou Chanrith, Ho Vann, Long Ry, Men Sothavarin and Nut Rumduol.