The long delay of the trial of Cambodia’s opposition leader Kem Sokha amounts to an abuse of his right to an expedited legal process, his defense lawyer said Tuesday, while an analyst said the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) stands to benefit politically by keeping the case in limbo.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017, two months after the arrest of Kem Sokha for his role in an alleged scheme to topple Prime Minister Hun Sen with the help of the U.S. government.
His trial began on Jan. 15, 2020 but was suspended in March on the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic and Hun Sen has hinted that it may not resume for years.
Kem Sokha’s defense lawyer Ang Udom told RFA’s Khmer Service on Tuesday that prolonging the CNRP chief’s case “seriously affects the accused’s right to an expedited trial,” according to both national and international legal standards. He called the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s refusal to reschedule the trial over the past several months a form of “misconduct” and said it was an “open violation” of Kem Sokha’s rights.
“Firstly, the case of His Excellency Kem Sokha is an extraordinary case, and secondly, it is a political conflict,” he said. “How can a political dispute be resolved legally?”
“[The court] isn’t following the law, they are violating the law, procedure, and the rights of the accused … What should we do now? What can we expect now?”
Ang Udom’s criticism of the court follows two letters sent by Kem Sokha’s defense team calling for the resumption of his trial—neither of which received a response. Last month, the defense filed a petition for intervention with the Ministry of Justice, which has yet to reply.
With Kem Sokha’s trial on hold indefinitely, Ang Udom said the defense has no way to proceed.
Repeated calls to Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesperson Y Rin and Justice Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin went unanswered Tuesday.
The ban of the CNRP marked the beginning of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for the CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
While Kem Sokha is out on bail awaiting his trial, his political activities are restricted, and he has largely involved himself in humanitarian work. But the opposition chief has said that even such activities are viewed with suspicion by the CPP.
Sok Eysan, a senior official and spokesman for the CPP, said he had no comment on the cases of Kem Sokha or dozens of other opposition activists arrested in recent months because they are “in the hands of the court.” He said that the ruling party is concentrated on helping to solve the problems of Cambodia’s people.
“No matter who says what, we do not take it into account or worry [about it], because every day the CPP is busy working on grassroots issues to resolve the challenges facing the citizens,” he said.
Hun Sen said in a closed-door meeting of the Council of Ministers in early August that Kem Sokha’s case could be postponed “until after the 2022 commune elections” and even beyond the 2023 election of the National Assembly, or parliament.
Lack of independence
Political commentator Em Sovannara told RFA it would be more profitable for the ruling party to delay Kem Sokha’s case and instead proceed with a pending case against more than 100 CNRP activists on charges of “incitement.” He said the strategy could reduce the strength of the opposition so that the ruling party could increase its influence and attract additional voter support ahead of future polls.
“Firstly, it benefits the ruling party because no other party or politician can come and compete for popularity,” he said.
“Secondly, doing so provides party stability and would provide for a smoother transition of power to the next generation of the CPP.”
Nonetheless, Em Sovannara warned that such a strategy is likely to tarnish the image of Cambodia’s judiciary, which is already widely seen as beholden to the ruling party.
He said that when the court charged Kem Sokha—leading to the dissolution of the CNRP—but provided no solid evidence against the opposition leader, both the national and international community could no longer ignore that it was operating under the influence of the CPP.
Additionally, he said, such a strategy could lead to further sanctions from Western governments over further rollbacks on human rights and democracy.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.