UPDATED 9:54 a.m. — The U.S. ambassador to Cambodia on Thursday raised concerns that prosecutors are introducing “fabricated conspiracy theories” about the U.S. into the ongoing trial of opposition leader Kem Sokha.
While a Justice Ministry spokesman claimed the government has never accused the U.S. of involvement in Sokha’s case, in which he is charged with conspiring with a foreign power to overthrow the government, Prime Minister Hun Sen accused the U.S. of plotting a coup with Sokha in 2017.
After attending about 15 minutes of Thursday’s trial hearing, U.S. Ambassador Patrick Murphy told reporters outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court that Sokha had a “very well-deserved reputation” as a “champion for rights and freedoms,” and the U.S. looked forward to “seeing his political rights restored.”
Sokha, along with more than 100 other senior leaders of the dissolved main opposition CNRP, was stripped of his right to engage in politics in November 2017, two months after Sokha was arrested and jailed on treason charges widely criticized by Western nations, including the U.S.
Murphy repeated a U.S. refrain that his government respected Cambodia’s independence and sovereignty, and “has never sought to interfere in Cambodia’s governance.”
Regarding Sokha’s trial, now in its third month, the ambassador said, “We’re very troubled to see that prosecutors have introduced into the courtroom fabricated conspiracy theories about the United States.”
While Murphy was speaking across the street from the courthouse, with a Cambodian U.S. Embassy staffer translating his remarks into Khmer, government security officers attempted to cut his comments short, but Murphy’s security personnel kept authorities away, allowing the ambassador to finish reading his prepared statement.
Murphy said the U.S. had provided nearly $3 billion in assistance to Cambodia in recent decades, including aid to “strengthen institutions and political parties,” which has been available to all parties, including the ruling CPP, and government institutions.
He did not take questions from reporters.
A spokesman for court prosecutors on Thursday responded to Murphy’s comments, stating that “the prosecutor hasn’t made accusations against the U.S., a foreign state or any foreign agent,” and charged Sokha based on facts and the law.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin told VOD that the Cambodian government and the court have never accused the U.S. of involvement in Sokha’s treason case.
But in September 2017, following Sokha’s overnight arrest, Hun Sen accused the opposition leader of conspiring with the U.S. to overthrow the government, the Phnom Penh Post reported at the time.
“The treason of colluding with foreigners to betray the nation requires [us] to make an immediate arrest,” the prime minister said in a speech in Phnom Penh, according to the Post.
Hun Sen alleged that the U.S. — whom he often called “the third hand” — had plotted a coup with Sokha. He referenced the U.S.-backed Lon Nol regime, which ousted late King Norodom Sihanouk in 1970 before being overthrown by the Khmer Rouge in 1975.
“The third hand used to use Lon Nol to conduct a coup, now the same problem happened,” Hun Sen said. “The Americans used to do it, this problem, with Lon Nol and now the American does this problem with Kem Sokha.”
Last month, government attorney Ly Chantola questioned Sokha in court about a 2010 meeting with former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Chantola cited news reports from that year in which Sokha is quoted as saying that Clinton had urged his Human Rights Party to merge with the Sam Rainsy Party during meetings with opposition leaders.
In the same hearing, deputy prosecutor Vong Bunvisoth suggested that a former U.S. State Department official, Daniel Baer, and the head of a U.S. democracy-building organization acted as middlemen to facilitate the formation of the CNRP.
Other current and former U.S. officials mentioned in court documents or during the trial include Samuel Downing, former U.S. Embassy political officer; Ed Royce, former U.S. representative; and U.S. Senator Ted Cruz.
On Thursday, Malin also said that Sokha’s trial is ongoing and the court had yet to determine whether the U.S. was involved.
Sokha has repeatedly denied foreign involvement in the formation of the CNRP, and the treason charges against him.
In a hearing last month, Judge Koy Sao dismissed a defense laywer’s request to summon foreign nationals who are accused of conspiring with Sokha to the court for questioning. Sao said the court could not call foreigners due to the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.
Malin agreed with Sao’s assessment at the February hearing.
“The court can call up witnesses from all involved parties if it is necessary for the case and the decision, at the judge’s discretion, but the Vienna treaty bans [summoning]…foreign state representatives,” Malin said.
The convention says a “diplomatic agent is not obliged to give evidence as a witness.”
Murphy, the U.S. ambassador, said on Thursday that the U.S. was watching Sokha’s trial very closely, as the proceedings have “potential implications for rule of law and due process in Cambodia.”
According to the World Justice Project’s latest Rule of Law Index, which was released on Wednesday, Cambodia ranks 127th out of 128 countries, with the nation’s civil justice system rated the worst in the world.
Cambodia’s criminal justice system was ranked 124th, scoring 0.17 and 0.16 out of 1.0 for corruption and improper government influence, respectively, while due process and rights of the accused scored 0.27 out of 1.0.
Regionally, the index ranked Cambodia last out of 15 countries, behind neighbors Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam, according to the 2020 rankings.
Political analyst Em Sovannara said Murphy’s remarks should serve as an alert to Cambodian authorities to reconsider the charges against Sokha.
Sovannara said that Murphy aimed to show that the U.S. is not pleased that it has been linked to a threat to topple the Cambodian government, which could adversely affect Cambodia’s bilateral relations with the U.S.
The government must have sufficient reason to charge Sokha, the analyst said, and if the court didn’t convince the U.S. government with its decision, the U.S. would lose confidence in Cambodia.
“I think that the relationship can be improved in the future after this appeal from the U.S. embassy,” Sovannara said.
He added that Cambodian authorities should also keep economic ties in mind, including U.S. and E.U. trade perks. The E.U. announced last month that it will remove Cambodia’s preferential trade access on select exports due to human rights violations, and explicitly noted Sokha’s arrest and charges in its reasoning for the partial withdrawal of the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade scheme, which is set to take effect in August.
In court on Thursday, defense lawyers asked Sokha to explain his rhetoric in speeches, as well as that of CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy.
Sokha explained that party messages were decided by the CNRP’s steering committee and board, but Rainsy’s rhetoric was a personal choice that did not necessarily reflect CNRP principles.
A judge and prosecutor on Wednesday questioned Sokha about his collaboration with Rainsy, in light of what the court officials called Rainsy’s “violent stance.”
Deputy prosecutor Bunvisoth on Thursday probed Sokha over the party’s strategy before the 2013 election and its interest in reforming the National Election Committee and updating the voter list ahead of the poll.
Bunvisoth asked whether the party received support from international organizations. Sokha said that both the CNRP and ruling CPP received election-related training from U.S.-funded democracy-building organizations, the National Democratic Institute and International Republican Institute.
Judge Sao said trial hearings will continue on March 25 and 26.
Additional reporting by Nhim Sokhorn
Updated at 9:54 a.m. with comments from a statement from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman.