Lawyers for Kem Sokha, the president of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), revealed on Tuesday that a Phnom Penh Municipal Court investigating judge has denied the latest request to have his treason charge dropped.
Meng Sopheary, one of Sokha’s four defence lawyers, said his legal team on Monday received a letter dated March 19 from Investigating Judge Ky Rithy rejecting the request they had submitted five days earlier.
Sokha was arrested in September 2017 and charged with conspiring with a foreign power to overthrow the government after a video clip from 2013 was posted on social media.
In the footage, Sokha said he had received advice from the US during his political career.
Chan Chen, another of Sokha’s defence lawyers, said it was the fourth request of its kind Sokha’s legal team had submitted.
He said the latest request argued that the court should have completed its investigation by now after more than a year in the process.
The court, he said, did not have evidence other than the video footage, and as Sokha was innocent and held a permanent address, he was unlikely to leave the country. Hence, the charge should be dropped.
“The most important reason behind the legal team’s request for the charge being dropped was that if we look at the facts and legal basis, there is not enough evidence of the crime to put the burden on my client and charge him with conspiring with a foreign power,” Chen said.
He said according to Investigating Judge Rithy, the request had been rejected because the court had not yet completed its investigation and has more witnesses to interview.
Investigating Judge Rithy could not be reached for comment.
Sokha was released on bail from a Tbong Khmum prison last September and placed under court supervision with conditions including remaining within an area around his house.
Legal expert Sok Sam Oeun said on Tuesday that under Cambodian legal procedure, Sokha had been released on bail, but the nature of his release could be open to interpretation.
“If we talk about rights and freedom, what is detention? For example, if we cannot go anywhere and must remain only in a certain area,is this detention or not? We have lost our freedom. In this situation, I think it is still technically detention,” he said.
He said the conditions of Sokha’s release on bail should be limited to a ban on him leaving the country.
“If he cannot get away from the 10 or 20sqm around his house, how can he survive if his family don’t have jobs? The court and the government regard his release as bail. But in my opinion, even though they give this definition, the international community won’t see it this way.
“My recommendation is that the court should try him if there is enough evidence. If there is no evidence, lift the charge. His situation should not be ignored like this,” Sam Oeun said.
He said Cambodia should amend the law to give a timeframe for those granted bail. If someone is released on bail, he might fear he could remain under court supervision for the rest of his life, he added.
“When the legality of his arrest is very questionable and when the charge against him has implicated US citizens, it is not so easy for the Cambodian courts to try him without charging, summoning and getting evidence from these foreign conspirators and accomplices.
“This could expose internationally the lack of competence and independence of those courts in the first place when confronted with the professional lawyers of the foreign accomplices,” said political analyst Lao Mong Hay.
He said the trial could further expose the lack of constitutionality within the country’s justice system, and even of the legitimacy of the government.
“So it would be better for the government to continue to keep Kem Sokha in his house and hide behind the cover of the claimed legality of his detention and the claimed judicial independence to defend itself from criticism and pressure,” he said.