Cambodia should expedite the trial of Kem Sokha and restore his political rights ahead of upcoming elections, the top U.S. diplomat in the country said Thursday following a meeting with the opposition party chief facing charges of “treason” widely seen as politically motivated.
U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia W. Patrick Murphy held a morning meeting with the president of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) at his home in the capital Phnom Penh, during which the two discussed delays in his trial and the state of U.S.-Cambodia relations.
In a tweet following the sit-down, Murphy expressed support for Kem Sokha, who was arrested in September 2017 for allegedly trying to overthrow the government with assistance from the U.S.
“Justice delayed is justice denied,” Murphy wrote.
“The U.S. looks forward to seeing [Kem Sokha’s] political rights restored, just as we hope all Cambodians can participate in the political process.”
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November 2017, two months after Kem Sokha’s arrest. His trial at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court began on Jan. 15, 2020 but was suspended in March last year on the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic and Prime Minister Hun Sen has hinted that it may not resume for years.
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 ruling Cambodian People’s Party (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.
The head of the CNRP thanked Murphy for his visit on Thursday in a post to his Facebook page, saying he welcomed the new administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, and that the meeting had covered U.S.-Cambodia relations “from the past to the future.”
“I also thank the U.S. through its ambassador for acknowledging my work on human rights and democracy, as well as my approach to the peaceful resolution of issues in the interest of the people of Cambodia,” Kem Sokha wrote.
“Recently, even though I lack full freedom, I remain concerned [about the people] I have met and try to help them as much as I can.”
‘Not a priority’
In response to Murphy’s tweet, Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin posted a comment on Facebook claiming that because Kem Sokha is not being detained, “his trial is not a priority.”
He said priority is given to those in detention to avoid holding them beyond pre-trial limits and on resolving backed up cases to prevent the overcrowding of prisons.
“If Kem Sokha were being detained, his would have been regarded as a priority case,” Chin Malin said.
CPP spokesman Sok Ey San told RFA’s Khmer Service that the ambassador’s comments are “purely his personal view” and won’t influence the court’s handling of Kem Sokha’s case. He said that due to the severity of the charges Kem Sokha faces, his case “will take longer.”
“To comment that the trial is being delayed amounts to interference in court affairs because Kem Sokha’s case is with the court,” he said. “No individual or country can tell the court how to proceed.”
Kem Sokha’s lawyer Pheng Heng told RFA he has requested that the court resume his client’s trial on three separate occasions and had also called on the Ministry of Justice to intervene, but to no avail.
He said the defense team has not received any notification from the court since Kem Sokha’s trial was suspended.
Pheng Heng also rejected Chin Malin’s claim that Kem Sokha’s case is not a priority.
“The case is almost four years old now,” he said.
“China Malin can’t say this is a not priority case. Kem Sokha is an opposition party leader. [He] was arrested and detained. How is a case against a person with more than three million supporters not important to Cambodia?”
CNRP mass trial
Kem Sokha’s meeting with Murphy took place on the same day that the Phnom Penh Municipal Court proceeded with its trial of 60 CNRP leaders and activists on charges of “incitement.”
Defense lawyer Lor Chhunthy told RFA that the court only questioned four CNRP activists, primarily about their personal Facebook pages.
He said one of his clients, Heng Chansothy, had simply “liked” a comment that read “liberate the country from dictators,” which did not social security as alleged.
Following the questioning, the trial was adjourned until Feb. 28, he said.
Chak Sopheap, director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), posted a comment on her Facebook page saying she had monitored the Thursday’s trial proceedings and condemned the judge for suggesting that statements protected under the right to freedom of expression amounted to evidence of incitement.
In Washington, California Rep. Alan Lowenthal told RFA the U.S. should follow the European Union in linking Cambodia’s trade privileges to its rights record.
“The Cambodian government’s labor and human rights abuses in the past decades must be thoroughly scrutinized and examined by the international community,” he said in a statement.
“Together, the U.S. and the international community must bring economic and punitive pressure to make Hun Sen understand that he must live up to the promises of the Cambodian Constitution.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.