UPDATED AT 11:03 p.m. ET ON 03-02-2023
Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha has been found guilty of treason five years after his arrest in Phnom Penh.
A judge at Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced him to 27 years imprisonment on charges that carried a maximum 30-year term, according to Am Sam Ath of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (Licadho), who monitored the verdict.
The court said he had colluded with a foreign power from 2010 until his arrest, the AP news agency reported. It said he had one month to file an appeal against its ruling.
Kem Sokha’s lawyer told RFA he plans to appeal the judgement.
Kem Sokha was arrested and placed under house arrest after the announcement. The court also stripped him of the right to vote or run as a candidate for an indefinite period.
Soeung Sengkaruna, spokesman for the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association said he was not surprised with the outcome.
“This is a serious verdict,” he said. “The verdict will affect younger politicians, they will have a difficult time competing in Cambodia’s political environment. I am concerned about human rights and democracy in Cambodia.”
Kem Sokha has always denied the charges which led to his arrest in September 2017, when more than 100 armed police officers stormed his home.
Several months earlier his Cambodia National Rescue Party had made large gains in local commune elections.
The 69-year-old was put on trial in January 2020 but the hearings were suspended two months later on the pretext of the coronavirus pandemic. The trial resumed last year.
The charges against him relate partly to a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power with the help of U.S. experts. The United States Embassy has rejected any suggestion that Washington was trying to interfere in Cambodian politics.
Kem Sokha spent a year in Trapeang Phlong Prison near the border with Vietnam. He was transferred to house arrest in Phnom Penh in October 2018. More than a year later, the court eased some of the restrictions by allowing him to travel inside the country but still banning him from participating in politics.
The ban proved superfluous. Shortly after his arrest Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved and outlawed the CNRP, paving the way for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party to take all 125 National Assembly seats in the 2018 general election.
Kem Sokha was born in Takeo province south of Phnom Penh, the son of farmers and grandson of a commune chief.
He was 22 and studying law when the Khmer Rouge arrived in Phnom Penh and forced him to return to his hometown where he discovered they had killed his father, he said in an interview for the book “Seeking Justice in Cambodia: Human Rights Defenders Speak Out,” by Australian researcher Sue Coffey.
Following the fall of the Khmer Rouge he studied chemistry in Prague before returning to work in the Ministry of Industry. After being forced out of the job he took up teaching, worked as a winemaker and then founded a human rights group.
He began his political career in 1993, serving as a National Assembly representative for the now-disbanded Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party.
In 1999, he joined FUNCINPEC and served as a senator until 2001.
In 2005, Kem Sokha founded the Human Rights Party which came third in general elections three years later, prompting him to join forces with Sam Rainsy’s eponymously-named party.
Their new Cambodia National Rescue Party was the only challenger to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party and won 45% of the seats in the 2013 general election.
Two years later, Sam Rainsy fled to France, where has been living in self-exile ever since, following a series of charges his supporters say are politically motivated.
Silencing the opposition
Kem Sokha was hoping a not-guilty verdict would clear the way for a return to politics. His daughter told the AFP news agency he was keen to return to the fray ahead of July’s general elections.
With four months to go he has become the latest threat to be silenced by Hun Sen.
“It was obvious from the start that the charges against Kem Sokha were nothing but a politically motivated ploy by Prime Minister Hun Sen to sideline Cambodia’s major opposition leader and eliminate the country’s democratic system,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch said in a statement released immediately after the verdict.
“Sending Kem Sokha to prison isn’t just about destroying his political party, but about squashing any hope that there can be a genuine general election in July.”
Last month Cambodia’s Supreme Court upheld the conviction of Candlelight Party Vice President Son Chhay, who has been ordered to pay U.S.$1 million in damages to the CPP and the National Election Commission after saying last year’s local commune elections were marred by irregularities.
Also in February Hun Sen shut down Cambodia’s last fully-independent news outlet after Voice of Democracy published a story about his son and political heir Hun Manet. A clever tactician, he then said VoD staff could apply for government jobs without having to sit the entrance examination. On Tuesday the government announced that at least 25 former staffers had applied.
Translated by Samean Yun. Edited by Mike Firn.
Story updated to include details of the judgement.