Cambodia’s Main Opposition Leader Put on Trial for Treason

Cambodia begins treason trial of opposition leader as criticism mounts

A Cambodian court convened on Wednesday to begin the trial of opposition party leader Kem Sokha on charges of treason in a case that has drawn condemnation from rights groups as a move by long-time leader Hun Sen to suppress political rivals. If found guilty, he could be sent to prison for up to 30 years.

After a year in pre-trial detention, he was released on bail in September 2018 and placed under house arrest, from which he was conditionally released in November.

"I strongly believe that the Hun Sen government and Kem Sokha are now in negotiations".

He stands accused of conspiring in a "secret plan" with foreign entities to overthrow the government, according to court documents - charges he vehemently denies.

The first hours of the trial focused on a short video from 2013 in which Sokha says he received foreign assistance to realize his political ambitions.

"All of my activities were focused on human rights and democracy, carried out in peaceful and non-violent manners in accordance with the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia". "I continue to demand that the court permanently drop the charge against me so that I can fully exercise my political freedom in participation in serving and defending the interests of the country and the people", Sokha said.

The actions were seen as meant to ensure victory by long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party in the 2018 general election by eliminating the only credible opposition force.

Diplomats packed the Phnom Penh Municipal Court amid tightened security on Wednesday, and reporters were not allowed to view the proceedings after the morning court session.

The government's lawyer, Ky Tech, said other than the USA, others allegedly involved in the case included Indonesia, Serbia, Australia, Canada, the European Union, Taiwan and India.

"We know that not only Kem Sokha has become a hostage of this trial, the entire opposition has too", said Prince Sisowath Thomico, a former senior member of Kem Sokha's dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party.

Civil society groups and journalism organizations released a joint statement Thursday morning, criticizing the court's decision to prevent independent journalists and NGOs from getting passes to enter the court. Sopheary said his team planned to play more of the original video of the speech next week.

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The trial could therefore run past the European Union's February 12 deadline for a final decision on whether to withdraw Cambodia's duty-free market access to the bloc under its Everything But Arms scheme.

The government may be resigned to the European Union taking action against it. Hun Sen has publicly said he won't let Cambodia be pushed around and its low-priced export industries can survive without the benefit of the trade privileges.

"Kem Sokha will be the victim of a staged trial on completely bogus treason charges", Robertson said.

Why is Kem Sokha on trial?

Cambodia is one of several developing nations with whom the EU has an "Everything But Arms" - or EBA - program granting preferential access to the European market for products other than weapons.

Kem Sokha was arrested in 2017 and his party banned as the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen cracked down on opposition, civil society groups and the media in the run-up to 2018 parliament elections in which the ruling party won every seat.

Asked if the case was political, Tech replied that the court was trying Sokha with conspiracy with a foreign power according to Article 443 of the Criminal Code.

Astrid Noren-Nilsson, an associate senior lecturer at the Centre for East and Southeast Asian Studies at Sweden's Lund University, said there was little chance Sokha would be acquitted.

She also questioned the government's contention that the alleged crime started in 1993, asking for specifics from the government lawyers to illustrate the treason plot.

"It is nearly impossible to predict (what will happen) since there are too many scenarios that range from a quick acquittal and a conviction followed by a long-term prison sentence or real forgiveness", he said.

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