Four years after his arrest on unsubstantiated treason charges, former Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha wants to resume the long-suspended trial that has sidelined him from politics, his lawyer said Wednesday, the eve of the anniversary of his 2017 arrest.
Kem Sokha, 68, is in political limbo awaiting the resumption of a trial that has been put off in what analysts say is a government tactic to tie him down through the next election cycle.
His trial opened on Jan. 15, 2020, more than two years after his arrest in a case denounced by his family as a “farce” and considered by the United States as politically motivated. The trial was suspended in March of that year on the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic until 2021, when it was further delayed.
The acting leader of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Sam Rainsy, lives in exile in France and was sentenced in absentia in March to 25 years for attempting to overthrow the government.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP two months after Kem Sokha’s arrest in September 2017, launching a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Attorney Pheng Heng said Kem Sokha, who maintains his innocence, is living with anxiety because he has been banned from involvement in politics while the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has refused to hold his trial.
“In principle, he has continued to deny the allegations, and he wants to see all charges against him dropped,” Pheng Heng said.
“If it is a political dispute, only politicians can talk to quickly end it. His stand is that he wants to see national reconciliation and not take any Cambodians as enemies,” he said.
The attorney said he has met both formally and informally with the judges to discuss expediting the case, but to no avail.
“Submitting letters for interventions [from the court] is not an answer at this time due to political tension. The court is using the excuse of the COVID-19 [virus pandemic] to delay the hearing,” Pheng Heng said.
RFA could not reach Taing Sunlay, director of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, for comment on Wednesday.
CPP spokesman Sok Ey San refused to comment on Kem Sokha’s freedom or his possible participation in the next general election in 2023, saying that the CNRP has been dissolved.
He also said that the CPP has no plan to negotiate with the defunct CNRP, which he called a “rebel group.”
“The government is a legitimate government. It can’t negotiate with an outlaw group regardless of circumstances. The individual case is being handled by the court so there is no negotiation,” Sok Ey San said.
Political analyst Meas Ny told RFA that Kem Sokha’s case is a politically motivated one that the court has delayed as “a strategy to weaken [his] influence and ensure the ruling party’s victory.”
“As long as the ruling party does not have the confidence that it will get full support from the people, Kem Sokha’s trial will be delayed until 2023 or 2024,” he said. “If the situation does not improve for the ruling party, then the democratic movement will continue to come under pressure.”
Meas Ny said that court cases against Kem Sokha and the CNRP have plunged Cambodia into a prolonged political crisis and damaged relationships with Western countries, some of which have imposed trade sanctions or visa bans on the country and its officials.
Without a quick political solution, Cambodia will fall into an even deeper crisis, he said.
In early August, former CNRP officials formed new parties to try to restore democracy to Cambodia, after asking Hun Sen to reinstate their political rights by dropping an order banning them from politics for five years that accompanied the court-ordered dissolution of the party.
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