PHNOM PENH: Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha has been sentenced to 27 years under house arrest after being found guilty of treason, ending a three-year trial drawn out by COVID-19 and delays to allow government lawyers to find new evidence of the politician’s alleged crimes.
The judge at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court told the former president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) that he would be banned from politics and voting in elections indefinitely. Nor would he be able to meet anyone outside his family.
Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 without a warrant in a midnight raid on his home and taken to a provincial jail. Denied bail several times before eventually being released under house arrest, the prominent politician was charged with “conspiracy with a foreign power” under article 443 of Cambodia’s criminal code.
The CNRP was dissolved and the government, under the longtime ruler and Prime Minister Hun Sen, made it a crime to associate with the name or depict its leaders’ images. Without any effective opposition, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) swept the board in national elections in 2018.
Shortly after Friday’s verdict was announced, the United States ambassador to Cambodia, W Patrick Murphy, tweeted that Washington was “deeply troubled” by the conviction. Kem Sokha had consistently denied the charges against him, saying he was only trying to win power through the ballot box.
“(Kem Sokha’s) trial, built on a fabricated conspiracy, was a miscarriage of justice,” Murphy wrote. “Inclusive democracy would further the Cambodian people’s aspirations for a prosperous society that respects all voices and rights.”
Journalist Tony Cheng, reporting from Bangkok, said Kem Sokha’s guilty verdict did not come as a surprise in a trial that had taken three years to complete and involved charges which had seen the opposition leader either held in detention or under house arrest since 2017.
“It seemed very unlikely there was going to be any leniency or certainly any chance of walking out of court today a free man,” Cheng said of the verdict.
“Nonetheless, the 27-year sentence on what, I think most people accept, are very trumped up charges seems very severe,” he said.
“This is effectively a life sentence” for the 69-year-old opposition leader, he added.
‘Lack of independence’
When the trial eventually began in January 2020, Kem Sokha was questioned over some 63 hearings about his involvement in politics starting from 1993, his time running a human rights NGO and his ties with Sam Rainsy, another opposition leader who lives in exile in Paris. The two men merged their political groupings to create the CNRP in 2012. Prosecutors argued Kem Sokha had been caught “red-handed” in a political conspiracy, producing as evidence a two-minute extract from an hour-long speech he made in Australia in 2013 where he said he had had support from the US since 1993.
Government lawyers interpreted opposition members’ actions of raising fists, wearing black or giving out lotus flowers as part of Kem Sokha’s alleged attempt at a color revolution.
Defence lawyers noted that their opponents kept repeating the argument but failed to show an explicit collusion between Kem Sokha and a foreign government.
As witnesses were questioned in October, the defence again asked why donors from foreign organizations including the US-based National Democratic Institute whose employees were expelled from Cambodia in 2017 were not called into the court to explain their alleged association with the defendant. (Int’l News Desk)