The third day of the treason trial of Cambodia’s opposition leader Kem Sokha kicked off Wednesday with his defense team submitting dozens of pieces of evidence they say will exonerate their client, as controversy continued over a lack of access to the hearings for members of the media and NGOs.
Pheng Heng, a lawyer representing the president of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), told RFA’s Khmer Service that his team had supplied the Phnom Penh Municipal Court with 35 new pieces of evidence, including photos and a full-length copy of the video prosecutors say shows that the opposition chief committed “conspiracy with foreign powers.”
“We request that the judge examine our evidence and especially the original video of Kem Sokha’s speech,” he said.
On Jan. 15, the first day of the trial—hearings of which are scheduled for Wednesdays and Thursdays each week—prosecutors showed a two-minute clip of a video they say is proof that Kem Sokha colluded with the U.S. to try to overthrow Cambodia’s government, but the CNRP chief’s lawyers said at the time that the context of the full hour-long video was missing.
The video cited as evidence by the court was recorded in 2013 and shows Kem Sokha discussing a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts—though the U.S. Embassy had rejected any suggestion that Washington was interfering in Cambodian politics at the time of his arrest in 2017.
Kem Sokha, 66, was arrested in September 2017 and charged with treason over the video. He maintains his innocence and his lawyers have said that prosecutors lack evidence to convict.
Two months after Kem Sokha’s arrest, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP for its role in the alleged plot and banned 118 of its officials from political activities.
The move to dissolve the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
On Wednesday, government lawyer Ky Tech told reporters that the evidence submitted by the defense would in fact bolster his case against Kem Sokha.
“The new evidence will benefit us, so we thank them for submitting it,” he said, without providing an explanation.
Access to trial
Also on the third day of the trial, court authorities agreed to allow 10 spaces for reporters and NGOs to monitor the trial for the first time after initially reserving 30 seats for diplomatic staff and family members, but facing criticism from local rights groups and the international community for not providing greater access to the public.
The decision also followed a statement early on Wednesday from New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), whose deputy Asia director Phil Robertson said Kem Sokha is being “denied his right to a public hearing in the fabricated criminal case against him.”
“The bogus prosecution of Kem Sokha is made even worse by unjustifiably keeping the media and rights monitors out of the courtroom,” Robertson said.
“Cambodian authorities should drop the charges against Sokha instead of trying to keep his shabby and unlawful treatment out of public view.”
HRW cited observers as saying that there had been “many unoccupied seats in the court’s public gallery on January 15 and 16,” and that journalists who had managed to get in on the morning of Jan. 15 “were not allowed back inside for the afternoon session.”
“The empty seats at Kem Sokha’s trial make a mockery of government claims that there is room for journalists and human rights monitors in the courtroom,” Robertson said.
“We expect that the European Union and other concerned governments will be watching the Sokha case closely and the truth about these sham proceedings will eventually come out,” he added, noting that next month the EU will determine whether Cambodia’s human rights record has improved enough to avoid losing tariff-free entry to the EU market under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade scheme.
Kem Sokha’s case is among the issues the EU review will be considering.
Local rights groups also weighed in Wednesday over the issue of limited access to the hearings.
“There are those who want to participate in the trial but can’t,” said Am Sam Ath, senior investigator for Cambodian rights group Licadho, adding that a small courtroom is not a reason to restrict people from attending.
“It is impacting the right to information access and drawing more criticism to the court because the trial is ‘public,’ but authorities have limited who can join.”
The Cambodian Center for Independent Media’s executive director Nop Vy, who sent a reporter to cover the trial, criticized the court’s decision to only provide an additional 10 spots for members of NGOs and the media, saying many journalists have been left out of the proceedings.
“Reporters need to work on many different angles, so 10 spots are not enough—it means other reporters’ rights are violated,” he said.
“The court does not respect the right of the media to access information. It should ensure that all reporters receive the same information.”
The CNRP president’s trial will reconvene on Thursday.
US lawmakers visit
Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy, which lent its voice last week to the chorus of calls for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to allow journalists into the courthouse, on Wednesday issued a statement saying that it had hosted three members of the U.S. House of Representatives this week as part of a bipartisan delegation to learn about Cambodia and help strengthen the U.S. commitment to Southeast Asia.
Seth Moulton, a Democrat from Massachusetts, Jim Banks, a Republican from Indiana, and Ron Estes, a Republican from Kansas on Wednesday met with Cambodian Foreign Minister Prak Sokhonn and separately with Defense Minister Tea Banh to discuss Congressional concerns about human rights, democracy, and Cambodia’s sovereignty, the embassy said in a message posted to Facebook.
“We are proud of the bipartisan system in the United States,” the statement quoted the Congressmen as saying.
“We have two major parties in our legislative branch. We don’t always agree about everything, but we do agree on the great importance of this region and our desire to work closely with Southeast Asia.”
The lawmakers said they “believe in a prosperous, democratic, and sovereign Cambodia,” and pledged to share what they had learned during their trip with fellow members of Congress and U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration on their return.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translatd by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.