Kem Sokha Grilled Over Fading Memories of Decades-Old Activities

4 min read
US Ambassador Patrick Murphy and CNRP president Kem Sokha outside Sokha’s Phnom Penh home on November 11, 2019. (Sanh Bun Hoeun/VOD)

Opposition leader Kem Sokha on Wednesday objected to the repeated questioning of his past activities, telling the court during his treason trial that he could not remember the details.

Sokha, president of the banned CNRP, faced the fifth day of his trial for allegedly conspiring with a foreign power, with questioning again focused on his political and NGO activities since 1993, and in particular what support he received from the U.S.

One of the consulting judges questioned Sokha about his activities as president of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), which he founded in 2002. The judge asked Sokha what he did when he went to meet people in the provinces.

“Do you remember what activities you conducted?” the judge asked.

Seated with a medical mask on for most of the morning hearing, Sokha answered that he could not provide the court with particulars.

“I do not remember because many years have passed,” he said.

One of two prosecutors then sought clarification about a speech Sokha gave in Melbourne in 2013. A video recording of the speech has been the central piece of evidence presented by the government and prosecution.

In it, he appears to say that the U.S. has supported him since his entry into politics in 1993, according to a government transcript. He visited the country every year, and experts advised him to establish CCHR and build up grassroots support similar to the way in which a popular movement ousted Yugoslavian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000, he says in the transcript.

On Wednesday, the prosecutor asked Sokha to explain his words in the speech: “Don’t use your head to crash against the rocks, but use wood to dig up the rock.”

“Using wood to dig up the rock is meant to explain to people to understand their rights and don’t vote for [that leader],” Sokha said.

However, when the prosecutor moved on to ask about Sokha’s activities in the provinces during his time at CCHR, Sokha stood up, removed his face mask and said he had already answered that line of questioning.

“I’ve already clarified so much, and you all still keep asking. I don’t know what you want to do with me,” he said.

“If you keep asking the same things, judges please call and question America.”

The funding of CCHR by U.S. democracy-building organization the International Republican Institute (IRI) has been another focus of the hearings thus far. Judges have questioned the extent of Sokha’s cooperation with IRI, but the defendant has said it was transparent donor funding.

In the afternoon, asked why he had quit politics to form CCHR, and why he later returned to politics, Sokha would say only that he saw an opportunity.

“It’s the freedom of people. We cannot limit it. Whenever one sees an opportunity that one wants to pursue, one can pursue it,” he said.

He added that the funding for his earlier political party, the Human Rights Party (HRP), came from public supporters. He had met with U.S. officials at the embassy in Phnom Penh while head of the HRP, but only in a diplomatic capacity, he said. He could not remember what years he had the meetings.

Outside the court, defense lawyer Pheng Heng said the repeated questioning of Sokha about the same set of topics was a waste of time.

“They were useless questions, asking the same,” Heng said. The prosecution needed to present some new, hard evidence, he said.

But Ky Tech, a government lawyer, said Sokha’s answers showed that his activities were as he had described in his 2013 speech: that a foreign power had told him to create CCHR and he went along with it.

VOD was founded as part of CCHR in 2003, though it was later split off. One of CCHR’s co-founders, Pa Nguon Teang, remains a director-in-exile for VOD’s parent organization, the Cambodian Center for Independent Media.

More than two years after his arrest and detention, Sokha’s trial has drawn international scrutiny, with the U.S. and E.U. calling for Cambodian courts to drop the case and allow Sokha’s main opposition CNRP to be reinstated. Sokha faces up to 30 years in jail if found guilty.

Additional reporting by Ouch Sony

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