The trial of former opposition leader Kem Sokha on treason charges resumed at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on January 19 after a long hiatus due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Sokha’s defence lawyers urged the court to accelerate the proceedings, arguing that prolonging the trial further was a violation of their client’s rights.
Sokha, former president of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was charged in late 2017 with “conspiring with a foreign power” – allegedly the US – to topple the government. He faces a prison sentence of up to 30 years if found guilty.
His trial was postponed in March 2020, just a few months after it began, due to the pandemic. The resumption of the court hearings for the trial took place in relative peace on the first day with only a few Sokha supporters coming to demonstrate outside of the court.
The trial is expected to draw close scrutiny by many local and international observers concerned with human rights and those claiming Sokha is being persecuted politically.
Chan Chen, one of Sokha’s defence attorneys, told reporters outside the court after the hearing that the prosecution played a video clip that to date serves as their primary evidence for the charge against Sokha.
He said the defence team urged the court to expedite the process, arguing that Sokha has been locked in this case since 2017 and that such a long period of time to resolve it one way or another violates his client’s rights as stated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
“Thus, our team as well as our client want to see a speedy procedure that is also acceptably just. But at this morning’s hearing, we learned that the trial won’t resume until January 25. We see that the gap between hearings is lengthy and the process is slow which is not what we asked for or what we expected,” Chen said.
Ky Tech, an attorney representing the government, said after the hearing that Sokha had accepted the delay of his hearing due to the pandemic, which also affected other trials and that he had also previously expressed support for the government’s measure to respond to Covid-19, especially vaccinating people.
According to Tech, prosecutor Seng Leang explained to Sokha and his defence team that there are only a few ways to finish a case in a speedy manner, such as when the accused has died after being charged but prior to trial.
“The case could end very soon if the accused accepts the truth of the charge levelled against him and if he accepts his guilt because his actions violated the law. If he confesses and accepts his guilt, then the case will end,” Tech said, quoting prosecutor Leang.
Regarding the nature of the charges, defence lawyer Chen said his client had denied the accusation because what he said in the video clip that was used as evidence against him was not meant to incite people to topple the government but just to encourage them to legally vote in elections.
Chen went on to argue that although Sokha was charged with treason, the government leaders, the public as well as foreign diplomats all still called him “His Excellency” and the government was also still permitting foreign diplomats to visit his client at his home.
“If my client had conspired with foreigners, then foreign diplomats as well as foreign ministers of some countries would not come to meet him openly and the government would not have allowed it either,” Chen said, adding that he urged the court to drop the charge.
Sisowath Thomico, a former adviser to the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk and ex-senior member of the CNRP, was present outside of the courtroom for the trial to show his support for Sokha.
“My hope for the Cambodian people regardless of any political party is that this will clear the air politically so we can move forward and we can take part in an election which is free and fair. That is the outlook I am hoping for,” he said.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director for rights group Licadho who was in the courtroom to observe the trial, said the hearing seemed heated but both sides had a chance to speak with each having their say on the procedures, though not much was truly debated.