Opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha gives a speech to supporters near the barricades set up to impede access to demonstrators, human rights observers and members of the press to the Municipal Court on July 16, 2014 in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Photo by Omar Havana/Getty Images)

Cambodia: Drop bogus treason case against opposition leader Kem Sokha

The Cambodian authorities’ treason charges against Kem Sokha, the leader of the country’s banned main opposition party, are bogus and should be dropped said Amnesty International today ahead of his trial hearing tomorrow.

Sokha, the President of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), faces up to 30 years imprisonment if found guilty of treason. His trial at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court is scheduled to begin at 8.30am on 15 January 2020.

“After two years held in arbitrary detention, the authorities have not presented a shred of credible evidence to support a charge of treason,” said Nicholas Bequelin, Amnesty International’s Regional Director. “The non-existent crime was politically manufactured to further the suppression of the opposition party. The Phnom Penh Court must acquit Kem Sokha to bring an end to this mockery of justice.”

The authorities have not presented a shred of credible evidence to support a charge of treason.

Nicholas Bequelin

Sokha, 66, was arrested in a midnight raid on his home in Phnom Penh on 3 September 2017 and later charged with “conspiracy with a foreign power”, or treason, under Article 443 of the Cambodian Criminal Code. He is accused of conspiring with the United States (US) government to illegally overthrow the Cambodian government.

The arrest occurred despite Sokha holding parliamentary immunity to prosecution. Authorities justified the arrest on the basis that the crime was ‘flagrant’, or caught red-handed, even though the only evidence presented was a video of a speech by Sokha from 2013.

“This prosecution, much like the allegations of a US-backed plot to overthrow the Cambodian government, has lacked credibility from day one,” said Nicholas Bequelin. “Rather than being based on facts and law, this concocted narrative is a front for the systematic denial of the rights to freedom of association and expression of millions who support the CNRP.”

“Over the past three years, the Cambodian authorities have weaponised the criminal justice system as a means of eliminating the CNRP. The dissolution of the party and the targeting of hundreds of its members through the courts constitute a concerted campaign of harassment against the political opposition.

“Kem Sokha’s charges must be voided and the rights of CNRP members must be fully respected to enable them to freely participate without discrimination in Cambodia’s political life once again.”

The authorities are clearly trying to limit scrutiny of this politically-motivated trial. It is essential that human rights monitors and journalists are given unhindered access to the trial.

Nicholas Bequelin

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court announced on 9 January that no more than 30 people will be able to observe the trial due to space limitations, and that all observers must register in advance. Many independent journalists and human rights monitors fear they are being denied access to observe the trial.

“The authorities are clearly trying to limit scrutiny of this politically-motivated trial. The gravity of these absurd accusations demands that the authorities uphold the highest standards of fairness and transparency, which requires holding a public hearing,” said Nicholas Bequelin. “It is essential that human rights monitors and journalists are given unhindered access to the trial.”

In the heavily edited video released by pro-government media prior to his initial arrest, Kem Sokha can be seen speaking to CNRP supporters in Australia. During the speech, Sokha tells supporters that he has received advice from advisers from the US in relation to effecting a change in the political leadership of Cambodia. There is no suggestion of violence or the use of force in the video excerpt.

Sokha was initially refused bail and sent to pre-trial detention in the remote maximum-security Correctional Center 3 prison on the border with Viet Nam in Tbong Khmum province. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared Sokha’s detention arbitrary and illegal. He was released on bail and subjected to restrictive conditions amounting to house arrest in September 2018.

His bail conditions were eased in November 2019 as the Cambodian government came under scrutiny as part of the European Union (EU)’s potential revocation of trade preferences under the “Everything but Arms” (EBA) trade initiative due to human rights concerns. The revised bail conditions maintain a ban on engaging in all political activity and from leaving Cambodia.

The EBA scheme, under which the world’s least developed economies can benefit from tariff-free export access to European markets, requires compliance with international human rights and labour standards. A final decision and outcome to the EU’s review is scheduled for February 2020.

Since 2017, the CNRP has faced politically-motivated accusations that it has colluded with the US government to foment a so-called “colour revolution”, characterised as a coup by the Cambodian authorities. This accusation formed the basis of the arbitrary dissolution of the CNRP by the Supreme Court in November 2017.