01:33, January 15 44 0 theguardian.com

2020-01-15 01:33:04
Cambodia: treason trial of opposition figure Kem Sokha begins

The trial of a top Cambodian opposition leader charged with treason has begun, more than two years after he was arrested in what is widely seen as a politically motivated prosecution.

Kem Sokha was head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party when he was arrested in September 2017 on the basis of an old video showing him at a seminar where he spoke about receiving advice from US pro-democracy groups.

He could be imprisoned for up to 30 years if found guilty in the trial that started on Wednesday. His party was dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in November 2017 on the same basis.

The actions were seen as intended to ensure victory for long-serving prime minister Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party in the 2018 general election by eliminating the only credible opposition. Cambodia’s courts are considered to be heavily politicised and under government influence.

“I know strongly that I am totally innocent, so I have to go to the court and challenge the charge and demand that they drop the case,” Kem Sokha told Associated Press on Wednesday. “I have never done anything wrong so the court has to drop the charges.”

It was unclear whether the public would get a fair account of Kem Sokha’s words, as the court had earlier announced there would be no room for journalists in the courtroom.

Erin Handley (@erinahandley)

A lot of international outlets will be relying on @Reuters for coverage of the trial of Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha. But their reporter isn’t allowed in the courtroom. https://t.co/3EDHj4qQew

January 15, 2020

A few dozen supporters gathered outside the court, which was guarded by police.

“We know that not only Kem Sokha has become a hostage of this trial, the entire opposition has too,” said Prince Sisowath Thomico, a former senior member of Kem Sokha’s dissolved party.

The human rights group Amnesty International has called for the charges against Kem Sokha to be dropped.

“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, the group’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,” he said.

The trial begins at a politically delicate time for Hun Sen, as Cambodia faces likely trade sanctions from the European Union that could seriously damage its economy.

Hun Sen has been in power for 35 years and has vowed to serve two more five-year terms in office.

His party swept all the seats in the National Assembly in the 2018 polls, but drew condemnation from human rights groups and Western nations, which charged that the election was neither free nor fair.

Hun Sen late last year made some gestures at political liberalisation, and the courts allowed Kem Sokha to be freed on bail after a period of tightly restricted house arrest. He is still banned from political activity.

The trial is expected to take up to three months, meeting twice a week, according to a report by the US-government-funded Voice of America, quoting Phnom Penh municipal court president Taing Sunlay.

That would be long by the standards of many Cambodian trials, and means the verdict would be delivered after the EU announces its decision.

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