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Sokha trial faces another Covid-19 delay as prosecutor tests positive

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Kem Sokha leaves the municipal court after his hearing in January. Hong Menea

Sokha trial faces another Covid-19 delay as prosecutor tests positive

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has postponed the March 9 hearing in the ongoing treason trial of former opposition leader Kem Sokha to March 16 – after a member of the prosecution returned a positive test for Covid-19.

According to a March 7 letter from the court seen by The Post on March 8, Plang Sophal, one of the lead prosecutors, had a positive rapid test result confirmed by PCR test at the National Institute of Public Health on March 4.

The letter said two other prosecutors had been in close contact with Sophal and had placed themselves in isolation as a result.

“To prevent the spread of the coronavirus, the prosecution requested that the court postpone this week’s hearing until the next available date,” the letter read. President of the trial chamber Koy Sao had signed off on the delay.

Reached by phone on March 8, Sophal confirmed that he had returned a positive result and asked for the postponement.

Pheng Heng, one of Sokha’s defence team, said he had received the letter announcing the latest delay.

“The hearing scheduling is entirely dependent on the court. Naturally, we would like to accelerate the trial, but we cannot force it to happen,” he said, adding that his team would continue to request that additional hearings be added to the timetable.

Sokha’s defense lawyers have urged the court to expedite the trial by adding more sessions each week, claiming that prolonging the case is a violation of their client’s rights.

Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin denied the accusation that the court was purposely prolonging the trial. He said the case involved national security and there were many pieces of evidence submitted by both parties, all of which need to be reviewed and cross-checked thoroughly, he said.

He added the court must follow correct procedures to ensure that the rights of the defendant are protected. There was one way to accelerate the conclusion of the case, he reiterated, and that was to plead guilty. A guilty plea meant that the accused would receive clemency, especially in a case where the prosecution had overwhelming evidence against the person on trial.

Malin said authorities have solid evidence in Sokha’s case. As an observer, he said he had never seen a case where the body of evidence had been assembled in as much depth as this one.

“In my personal view – in a case with such strong and consistent evidence against the accused – the best course of action would simply be to plead guilty. This would result in clemency and court proceedings would be wrapped up quickly,” he said, adding that this was a common procedure in many countries with advanced democracies.

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