Opposition leader Kem Sokha was questioned in court on Wednesday about what he meant when he said during a 2013 speech in the U.S. that opposition gains made “Cambodian people stand up.”
Sokha, leader of the outlawed opposition CNRP, had been speaking just four months after a disputed Cambodian election that was nearly won by his now-dissolved opposition CNRP.
The CNRP president on Wednesday faced the seventh day of his trial at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for allegedly conspiring with a foreign power. He is accused of working with the U.S. to overthrow the Cambodian government and faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted.
Government lawyers requested that the court play an approximately five-minute video showing Sokha giving a speech and receiving a framed certificate from then-U.S. Representative Ed Royce at a CNRP fundraising event on November 30, 2013 in Long Beach, California.
Royce, a long-time critic of Prime Minister Hun Sen, was at that time a Republican congressman who represented the U.S.’s largest Cambodian community.
In the video, Sokha says he is happy to hear Royce state clearly that “he wants to see Cambodian people have real democracy.”
“I also personally have been supported by the U.S. government to train in democractic practices for five years,” Sokha tells an audience. “As a result, what we have gained so far, it makes Cambodian people stand up.”
Sokha was speaking four months after Cambodia’s July 2013 national elections, which saw the ruling CPP claim 68 parliamentary seats over the CNRP’s 55.
After the CNRP contested the results amid allegations of voter fraud, thousands of opposition supporters and garment workers protested in the streets of Phnom Penh for months.
At the 2013 fundraiser in California, Royce, who was then chairman of the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee, criticized Hun Sen for alleged corruption and “the stealing of elections,” the Cambodia Daily reported at the time.
“We say enough to Hun Sen. Hun Sen must go. We want fair elections in Cambodia,” Royce said, according to the Daily.
In the courtroom, government lawyer Ly Chantola read aloud Sokha’s words from the video from a transcript, and asked Sokha about the meaning of the phrase “stand up.”
Sokha, who wore a facial mask during the duration of the hearing amid the global novel coronavirus outbreak, replied, “‘Stand up’ here means people understand about democracy and human rights.”
The government’s attorneys once again questioned him 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).
In November 2002, Sokha used a $450,000 grant from IRI to found the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR). He led the organization until 2007.
In 2008, Sokha’s Human Rights Party (HRP) won just three seats in the National Assembly election.
By the next national election in 2013, Sokha’s HRP had merged with the Sam Rainsy Party to form the CNRP, which narrowly lost to the ruling CPP.
After making electoral gains again in the 2017 commune elections, the CNRP was banned in November 2017, two months after Sokha’s arrest.
When Chantola asked Sokha about his statement about receiving support for five years from the U.S., Sokha said he had been referring to U.S. funding to support “democratic trainings” during his time as CCHR president from 2002 to 2007.
VOD was founded as part of CCHR in 2003, but later split from the organization.
Last week during the trial, Sokha denied that NDI and IRI supported his HRP. On Wednesday, he again said that his former party was not financially backed by the U.S., but the U.S. supported programs run by the organizations to promote democracy and human rights in Cambodia.
Another government lawyer Sann Chuoy asked Sokha on Wednesday if HRP received training from foreigners.
“I said they trained in general, not only the Human Rights Party,” Sokha answered. “If [NDI and IRI] did it for the Human Rights Party, they also did it for other parties.”
Chuoy also asked Sokha about a meeting at the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh with then-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.
Sokha said he could not recall the date of their meeting, but believed it happened before the 2012 commune elections.
“Did they ask to meet you, or did you ask to meet them?” Chuoy asked Sokha.
“I think at that time they would rather have wanted to meet [me] more,” Sokha replied.
Later, Sokha said the government lawyers were asking him the same questions from previous hearings, which he had already answered.
“I already stated that [Daniel Baer] asked about the situation around the elections,” Sokha said in court. “I asked [U.S. officials] to help through their election monitors,” and with other election programs, like organizing political debates, he added.
Chuoy asked if Sokha had requested training from NDI and IRI. The politician said sometimes the organizations offered programs to political parties and sometimes his party requested training.
But, he added, “If it was not also done for the ruling party, the activity would not have happened.”
When asked who led IRI and NDI at the time, Sokha said he did not remember because the leaders “changed all the time.”
In the afternoon session, deputy prosecutor Vong Bunvisoth showed a photo of one of Sokha’s daughters with former IRI country director Jackson Cox.
Citing Koun Khmer, a Facebook page known for leaking information critical of the CNRP, Bunvisoth alleged that Cox offered to help send Sokha’s daughter to study in the U.S.
Sokha didn’t address the claim, and instead questioned the source of the photo, saying, “What is the Facebook page Koun Khmer? What is the source of it? … It’s 100 percent exaggerated. It’s a serious insult.”
Sokha was visibly perturbed by the prosecutor’s statement, at which point the judge intervened.
“Since this is the evidence that has been submitted in this case, I cannot stop him [from asking about this],” Judge Koy Sao said.
“I already said that for an anonymous source, I will not answer. Please find a clear source and then I will answer,” Sokha responded.
Bunvisoth also asked Sokha about his meeting with Baer and whether Sokha had asked Baer to provide funds to NDI and IRI for political parties.
“I asked the U.S. to help with elections through democratic organizations like NDI and IRI,” Sokha said, without specifying whether he had requested funding.
Sokha’s defense lawyer Pheng Heng earlier asked his client if any foreign agent or country had participated in the HRP’s founding.
Sokha said the party was “born from Cambodian people.”
“It belongs to Cambodian people. It’s for Cambodian people. There is no foreigner participating,” he said.