Sokha’s lawyers: Treason case may be cleared by PM remarks

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Prime Minister Hun Sen meets with Kem Sokha at the late Hun Neng’s house in Kampong Cham province on May 8. SPM

The lawyers of embattled former opposition leader Kem Sokha have said that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recent comments on his case, in which he said the government did not accuse the US of being involved, should be sufficient for their client to be free from the charge of conspiracy with foreign power.

Chan Chen, one of Sokha’s lawyers, made the comment in response to Hun Sen’s attempt to clarify that the Cambodian government had not accused the US of conspiracy theories with Sokha, but had brought the charges against him based solely on what the former opposition leader said himself.

Sokha, former president of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was arrested in September 2017 at his home in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district after a video clip of him went viral, in which he is seen telling an audience in Australia that he had been receiving assistance from the US and academic experts as part of a long-term strategy to engender political change and upheaval in Cambodia.

Speaking to about 2,000 diaspora Cambodians who had descended in Washington to greet him ahead of the ASEAN-US Special Summit, Hun Sen said he did not accuse the US of engaging in conspiracy with Sokha, but that such claims were openly made by Sokha himself in the video, adding that the US can decide to refute what Kem Sokha had said.

Earlier this week, Sokha met with Hun Sen when the former attended the funeral of the prime minister’s older brother Hun Neng. The premier said Sokha’s court case was not discussed during the meeting.

“He met me but we did not discuss the case. But at least His Excellency Kem Sokha expressed his condolences to the soul of my mother-in-law. He also expressed his condolences about my brother’s death and we spoke for four hours,” he said to Cambodian supporters in Washington.

Hun Sen then reiterated his and the court’s belief that Sokha had implicated himself with the videos, and that it was a matter Sokha had to work out personally with US authorities who had been supporting him politically.

“I want to stress that both the court and government have not accused the US on [conspiracy charges]... Kem Sokha had said that the US had supported him on [his political agenda]. So, the issue is not between Cambodia and the US, but between Kem Sokha [and the US].

“We did not accuse the US of helping Kem Sokha topple [the government]. It was Kem Sokha who said that. Kem Sokha had detailed how Milosevic toppled, and other cases.

“But let the court do their work, as we had said often that judicial power is independent in Cambodia. But, of course, there are people who will push the court to do their bidding,” he said.

Sokha’s case was also discussed by Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman and Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation Prak Sokhonn on May 12 in Washington.

Sherman “voiced concerns about fundamental freedoms in Cambodia, including the prosecution of Kem Sokha and restrictions on civil society leaders in advance of the June 2022 commune elections and 2023 national elections,” said Department of State spokesperson Ned Price.

Hun Sen also used his meeting with his Cambodian supporters to express his opinion that, were he a judge on Sokha’s treason trial, he would permit Sokha to leave the country for medical checks or to visit his family.

“I just express my feeling that if he requests to go abroad for reasons such as health checks or to visit family, there should not be obstacles. I told him that. But obviously, I do not have the power to decide. I just explained to him that in order to go overseas for health checks, he would need to make a request to the court.

“But the court has the full power to decide. I don’t interfere [in their rulings]. But if I were the judge, I would permit it. This is just my opinion,” he said.

Kin Phea, director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, observed that Sokha’s claim of US support might not be in reference to the US government.

“We cannot say he referred to the US government. But the Cambodian government has a duty to ensure social order and national security,” he said, suggesting that Sokha’s claim had led to national political instability and had to be acted on by the court.

During his meeting with supporters, Hun Sen also called on his supporters to hit back at former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, though he did not mention him by name, for allegedly urging the US to “deport” supporters of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the US.

“Is this a kind of threat? It’s time for our people here to stand up and defend your freedom in the US,” he said. “Why are you living on the land of the ‘mother of democracy’ but receiving such a threat? Which law states this [as a reason for] deportation?”