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The former leader of the now banned Cambodian National Rescue Party was arrested in 2017 and charged with treason.
Phnom Penh, Cambodia – Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha has been sentenced to 27 years of house arrest after being found guilty of treason, ending a three-year trial dragged out by COVID-19 and delays that allowed government prosecutors to find new evidence of the politician’s alleged crimes .
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court judge 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 warrant in a midnight raid on his home and taken to a provincial prison. The prominent politician was denied bail several times before he was finally released under house arrest, and was charged with “conspiracy with a foreign power” under Article 443 of the Cambodian Penal Code.
The CNRP was disbanded and the government, under longtime ruler and Prime Minister Hun Sen, made it a crime to associate with its name or depict its leaders’ images. With no effective opposition, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) swept the board in 2018 national elections.
Shortly after Friday’s verdict was announced, US Ambassador to Cambodia W Patrick Murphy tweeted that Washington was “deeply troubled” by the conviction. Kem Sokha had consistently denied the allegations 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 will advance the aspirations of the Cambodian people for a prosperous society that respects all voices and rights.”
“Lack of Independence”
When the trial finally began in January 2020, Kem Sokha was questioned over some 63 hearings about his involvement in politics from 1993, his time leading a human rights NGO and his ties to Sam Rainsy, another opposition leader living in exile in Paris . The two men merged their political groupings to create the CNRP in 2012.
Prosecutors argued that Kem Sokha had been caught red-handed in a political conspiracy, producing as evidence a two-minute extract from an hour-long speech he gave in Australia in 2013, in which he said he had had US support since 1993.
Government lawyers interpreted opposition members’ actions of raising their fists, wearing black or handing out lotus flowers as part of Kem Sokha’s alleged attempt at a color revolution.
Defense lawyers noted that their opponents continued to repeat the argument but failed to show explicit collusion between Kem Sokha and a foreign government.
When witnesses were questioned in October, the defense again questioned why donors from foreign organizations – including the US-based National Democratic Institute whose staff were expelled from Cambodia in 2017 – were not called into court to explain their alleged links to the defendants.
Government lawyers also sought to link Kem Sokha to foreign governments by sharing photos of the leader with ambassadors as well as at a garment worker 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 for decades sought to promote a rights-respecting Cambodia should use this frivolous 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 scheduled for the following year.
Hun Sen has continued to crack down on the opposition and freedom of expression in recent years with mass court cases against opposition politicians and even party members. Last month, he revoked the license of Voice of Democracy (VOD), one of the country’s last independent media outlets.
The next general election will take 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 hunt down opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen knows no bounds.
– Sokha is one of many opposition members who have been subjected to a physically and mentally taxing ordeal that will continue after today’s unfair verdict. There can be no right to a fair trial when the courts have been co-opted by the heavy hand of the government.”