Court Speeds Through Kem Sokha Trial Witness Questioning With Consecutive Sessions

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Kem Sokha leaves the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on October 12, 2022. (Hean Rangsey/VOD)
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The Phnom Penh Municipal Court is holding back-to-back sessions of the Kem Sokha trial this week to get through witness cross examinations, a level of urgency not seen in the so-far sluggish trial.

The court is in its 60th session of the treason trial against former CNRP president Kem Sokha, who was arrested and charged in 2017, shortly before the opposition party was dissolved in November of that year.

The trial began questioning witnesses last week, when former Sam Rainsy Party president Kong Korm was in the dock. Judge Koy Sao announced at today’s hearing that the court will hold another full-day hearing on Thursday to finish questioning of witnesses, though it was not clear how many more witnesses would be asked to testify in court.

Cross examination kicked off with Chhim Phal Virun, a former Cambodian Center for Human Rights officer and current CPP spokesperson. He said he was asked to come help at CCHR by Pa Nguon Teang, who is an exiled director at VOD’s parent organization Cambodian Center for Independent Media, and Kry Song, who, according to Phal Virun, was the head of finance at CCHR.

Phal Virun also said that Nguon Teang told him at the time that CCHR had $800,000 to start the NGO, which Phal Virun found “strange” because the NGO did not have any formal structure.

He claimed that Sokha had met with officials from the U.S.-based group International Republican Institute, which has funded democracy-building programs in Cambodia, and also other “American people.” He said he considered it unusual how frequently donor NGOs were visiting a local NGO.

He added that Sokha would often make references to Serbia and Yugoslavia at public forums — two countries he also mentioned in a 2013 speech given in Australia that the government claims is the smoking gun for the treason charge.

Phal Virun also criticized Sokha’s leadership at CCHR and commented on his political inclinations.

“The characteristics of CCHR and the activities of the officials are qualified as an agent rather than as a local NGO,” he said in court.

“Kem Sokha had political characteristics. He already said foreign organizations asked him to create it and in reality, I have seen it like this,” Phal Virun said in response to a question from prosecutor Chhay Hong.

Defense lawyer Pheng Heng questioned Phal Virun about his assertion that Americans routinely met with Sokha, asking how the former CCHR official knew they were from the U.S.

“We considered them as foreigners who came to meet Sokha, but Sokha’s close officials said they were U.S. citizens. Generally, they were U.S. citizens,” Phal Virun replied.

Asked if he could name the officials, Phal Virun said he did not remember their names. Defense lawyer Heng also asked why Phal Virun thought the meetings were “secret,” as alleged by him earlier in the questioning.

“Because I did not know the content [of the meeting]. The staff did not know,” he replied.

Sokha stood up asking to speak after Phal Virun’s testimony, but was overruled by the judge.

Questioning then moved to environment activist Keo Srey Neang and Seng Sovanna, former deputy head of the CNRP Phnom Penh youth wing, who both attended a 2016 training in Indonesia by Serbia-based group Canvas, which has been accused by the government of assisting the CNRP to foment a “color revolution.”

Srey Neang said she was not a CNRP activist and part of the “Social Breaking News” group along with Ma Chettra, who is another witness in this case. She said the group advocated for social and environmental issues.

She was trained on how to observe and monitor the election process, Srey Neang said, and was not aware if the CNRP used the training to hone its strategy. Sovanna said he was an active youth member of the dissolved opposition party, but the party was not involved in picking him for the Indonesia training.

Prosecutor Hong asked him if Canvas’s trainings were directly reflected in Sokha’s speeches and appeals to the electorate.

“I think they are not matching with each other,” she said, pointing out that the structure of the lessons and Sokha’s speeches were different. “The [Canvas] lessons that the prosecutor is showing are in chronological order, but Sokha’s speeches were political messages.”

The court then proceeded with testimony from current CCHR director Chak Sopheap, who was asked about her background and other information about the NGO. Questioning focused on funding sources for the human rights monitoring group.

Hong asked Sopheap to comment on Phal Virun’s accusations, especially about IRI being the sole funder for the organization, but she refused to talk about another witness’s testimony.

“I will not give an explanation on the testimony of the previous witnesses. Since the beginning till now, we have been transparent and get not only IRI funds. There are other countries also [giving funding],” she said.

She added that funding sources for the organization were available on the website and easily accessible to everyone.

The court ended the day’s session with testimony from Sar Sorn, a land activist from the Phnom Penh inner-city Borei Keila land dispute, who was asked about her participation in 2016’s Black Monday campaign, which was started by civil society groups who dressed in all black to advocate for the release of jailed Adhoc staffers.

Sorn was asked about the Borei Keila community’s participation in the campaign, and if any party had persuaded her to join it.

“No party or any organization persuaded me to do it,” she told prosecutor Sophal.

The trial is set to resume on Thursday.

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