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The former leader of the now-banned Cambodian National Rescue Party was arrested in 2017 and accused of treason.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia – 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 that allowed for government lawyers to find new evidence of the politician’s alleged crimes.
The judge at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court court told the former president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) that he would be banned from politics and voting in elections indefinitely.
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.”
‘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 colour 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 organisations – 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.
Government lawyers also attempted to link Kem Sokha to foreign governments by sharing photos of the leader with ambassadors as well as at a garment workers’ protest against low minimum wages in 2014.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the verdict demonstrated a “total lack of independence” between the Cambodian judiciary and Hun Sen’s ruling CPP.
“Governments that have sought for decades to promote a rights-respecting Cambodia should use this nonsensical and punitive verdict to reassess their approach to Hun Sen’s government,” he said.
Kem Sokha’s arrest followed the CNRP’s strong performance in local polls in 2017, suggesting it would pose a serious challenge to the CPP in national polls that were scheduled for the following year.
Hun Sen has continued to crack down on the opposition and freedom of expression in recent years with mass trials of opposition politicians and even party members. Last month, he revoked the licence for Voice of Democracy (VOD), one of the country’s last independent media outlets.
The next general election takes place later this year.
“This verdict is an unmistakable warning to opposition groups months before national elections,” Amnesty International’s Deputy Regional Director Ming Yu Hah said in a statement. “The use of the courts to hound opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen knows no limits.
“Sokha is one of many opposition figures who has been put through a physically and psychologically taxing ordeal which will continue after today’s unjust verdict. There can be no right to a fair trial when the courts have been co-opted by the heavy hand of the government.”