Following a marathon treason trial that first commenced in January 2020, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on March 3 sentenced former opposition leader Kem Sokha to 27 years in prison – in a much-anticipated verdict that has drawn a barrage of mixed reactions from national institutions and international organisations including the UN, US and EU.
Sokha, former president of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was given the lengthy prion term for conspiring with foreign powers to overthrow the government – under articles 439 and 443 of the Criminal Code – and banned from politics and elections under Article 450. He was not immediately sent to prison but confined to him home under court supervision.
First arrested in 2017 in Phnom Penh, Sokha is now barred from leaving his residence in Tuol Kork district’s Boeung Kak II commune, and from having contact with anyone by any means aside from his family members – unless granted permission by the prosecutor.
Following the verdict came a storm of both applause and criticism.
US Department of State spokesman Ned Price said in a press statement that Sokha’s conviction was “part of a larger pattern of threats, harassment, and other unacceptable actions by Cambodian authorities to target political opposition leaders, media, and civil society”.
“These actions impede any chance for a free, transparent and fair electoral process,” he said, describing the treason charges as “politically-motivated”.
“Prosecuting and convicting individuals like Kem Sokha and many other political figures for exercising their freedoms of expression and association undermines Cambodia’s Constitution, international obligations, and past progress to develop as a peaceful, pluralist, and inclusive society,” he said.
US ambassador to Cambodia W Patrick Murphy claimed that Sokha’s trial was built on a “fabricated conspiracy” and that it was a “miscarriage of justice”.
“Inclusive democracy would further the Cambodian people’s aspirations for a prosperous society that respects all voices and rights,” he tweeted just after the delivery of the verdict.
Volker Turk, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said he was dismayed by the sentence handed down to Sokha.
“I am concerned by the basis of the charges and the conduct of his trial. I urge the government to promptly release Kem Sokha from confinement and ensure his human rights are fully respected, including his right to a fair trial and to participate fully in the conduct of political affairs,” he said in a statement.
Also making statements ranging from concern to outright protest were the embassies of Australia and other Western countries – among them Canada, France and the UK – as well as EU High Representative Josep Borrell.
While the reactions from the West may be uniformly disapproving, Cambodian state institutions and some members of the public who spoke on the record have expressed their support for the ruling, saying the court’s decision reflects strict law enforcement and contributes to the protection of peace, political stability and prosperity.
“The verdict is justice for the Cambodian people ... and shows the devotion of Cambodian people in their protection of independence, sovereignty, peace and social development for the last four decades,” stated a petition signed by the Phnom Penh Department of Health.
The municipal court said in its own statement that promoting human rights and democracy – as cited by some foreign diplomats and international organisations in their defence of Sokha – is not illegal and the ability to engage in such actions is ensured by Cambodia’s Constitution.
“However, if the court finds that someone is promoting human rights and democracy by taking support and conspiring secretly with foreign powers or foreign agencies to topple the legitimate government through ‘people power’ or colour revolution... it is an illegal act, seriously affecting peace and security, social stability and the happiness of the people,” it said.
“In this regard, the accused has used ‘promoting human rights and democracy’ as his pretext or a stepping stone to mobilise people power by all means possible, both legal and illegal, with an intention to carry out a colour revolution to topple the legitimate government under a secret conspiracy with foreign states or agencies,” added the March 3 statement.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation also rebuffed claims that Sokha’s trial was built on a “fabricated conspiracy” and that the verdict was a “miscarriage of justice”, dismissing them as “biased, unfounded, prejudiced and hypocritical”.
In its March 3 statement, the ministry said some western diplomats had exercised “arbitrary extension” of their regular diplomatic role to that of an “extraterritorial invigilator” of the judicial system of the host country, which it said violated the UN Charter and the 1961 Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations.
“Foreign conspiracy is [a crime] explicitly stipulated in articles 439 and 443 of Cambodia’s penal code. Western countries also take foreign interference seriously with abundant instances of politicians being [indicted] for such a heinous crime,” it said.
It added that several dozen of hearings had been conducted in a transparent manner with “close observance” by representative of the media, civil society organisations and foreign embassies, while the defendant had enjoyed a full legal defence with support from four attorneys.
“Crime is a crime, and it cannot be justified by other aspirations,” stressed the statement.
It also said that the foreign envoys’ “political narrative, whether it derives from delusion or arrogance”, violated the principle that diplomats have a “duty not to interfere in the internal affairs of the host state”.
“Despite the absence of a few politicians, who are either in conflict with the law or banned from politics due to their infringements on the law, Cambodia remain steadfast in holding the coming July’s general election in a free, fair, just and transparent manner, the one that will be fully reflective of the people’s will,” it said.