Kem Sokha, leader of the outlawed main opposition party, will stand trial for alleged treason in January — 28 months after his arrest — the Phnom Penh Municipal Court said on Monday, amid heightened pressure on Cambodia from the E.U. and U.S.
Sokha, 66, faces 15 to 30 years in prison on a charge of conspiracy with a foreign power over allegations that he attempted to overthrow the Cambodian government with U.S. support. Both he and the U.S. have denied the accusations, which a rights group on Tuesday called “bogus.”
Sokha’s trial begins on January 15 at 8:30 a.m., the Phnom Penh court said.
The Appeal Court on Monday dismissed an appeal from Sokha’s defense lawyers to halt the trial, claiming that the lower court’s procedures in forwarding Sokha’s case followed the law.
Sokha, the party president of the main opposition CNRP, was arrested and jailed in September 2017. Two months later the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP, leaving the ruling party’s only viable challenger out of the 2018 national election.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP won all 125 National Assembly seats on offer, making Cambodia a de facto one-party state.
In November, the Phnom Penh court eased restrictions against Sokha, allowing him to leave the area around his home and meet with foreign ambassadors. However, he is not allowed to leave the country or participate in political activities while out on bail.
Sokha’s lawyer Chan Chen told VOD that he didn’t know whether his client would accept the scheduled date from the court or continue to appeal to the Supreme Court.
The accusations against Sokha have been seen by national and international observers as political in nature, Chen said. To show Sokha’s innocence, and for the benefit of the nation, this case should be resolved with a political solution, he added.
“It’s better to go through a political solution in order to protect national interests. That way is the best choice in terms of national unity and conciliatory principles,” Chen told VOD.
The main evidence put forward against Sokha has been a video recording of a 2013 speech in Australia in which he says he has received support from the U.S. since he entered politics in 1993.
Chen told VOD last week that no foreigner had been questioned during the more than two-year court investigation into the allegations that Sokha conspired with a foreign power against the government.
The court has said it has enough evidence to bring Sokha’s case to trial.
Kem Monovithya, a CNRP spokeswoman and Sokha’s daughter, said on Twitter, however, that Sokha’s acquittal was “absolutely necessary if: a) the court wants to demonstrate its independence, since Kem Sokha is innocent and b) the regime has the slightest interest in showing the world it will no longer use courts as a political tool against” the opposition.
Cambodia’s judiciary has long been viewed as being under the thumb of the ruling party, and used to prosecute dissidents.
The European Commission has said Sokha’s arrest and detention and the banning of the opposition party, among other “repressive actions,” appeared to violate human rights compliance requirements under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade scheme.
The EBA grants developing nations, including Cambodia, duty-free and quota-free access for all imports except arms and ammunition to the European bloc. Cambodia’s compliance under the EBA scheme has been under formal review since February due to human rights concerns.
The government has until Thursday to respond to the E.U.’s preliminary findings in its review of the EBA agreement. The E.U.’s final decision about whether EBA will be suspended is expected in February.
The U.S. government is also considering withdrawing Cambodia’s trade preferences over rights concerns, and on Monday took targeted actions against elite individuals close to Hun Sen.
The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned Kun Kim, the National Committee for Disaster Management first vice president and former Royal Cambodian Armed Forces chief of staff; three members of Kim’s family; and Try Pheap, a timber tycoon and one-time adviser to Hun Sen, under the U.S. Global Magnitsky Act for alleged corruption.
Assets in the U.S. belonging to the designated individuals, and 15 specified companies, are blocked and must be reported to the Office of Foreign Assets Control, the department said in a statement.
Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry responded on Tuesday by expressing “strong dismay over the arbitrary designation,” calling the sanctions against Kim and Pheap an “ambush” against recent efforts to restore trust between Cambodia and the U.S.
(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)