PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA (AP) — The trial of a top Cambodian opposition leader charged with treason began yesterday, more than two years after he was arrested in what is widely seen as a politically motivated prosecution.
Kem Sokha was head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party when he was arrested in September 2017 on the basis of an old video showing him at a seminar where he spoke about receiving advice from United States (US) pro-democracy groups.
He could be imprisoned for up to 30 years if found guilty. His party was dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in November 2017 on the same basis.
The actions were seen as intended to ensure victory by long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodia People’s Party in the 2018 general election by eliminating the only credible opposition force.
“I know strongly that I am totally innocent so I have to go to the court and challenge the charge and demand that they drop the case,” Kem Sokha told The Associated Press (AP) yesterday. “I have never done anything wrong so the court has to drop the charges.”
It was unclear whether the public would get a fair account of Kem Sokha’s words, as the court had earlier announced there would be no room for journalists in the courtroom.
Few dozen supporters gathered outside the court, which was guarded by police “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.
The human rights group Amnesty International called for the charges against Kem Sokha to be dropped.
“After two years held in arbitrary detention, the authorities have not presented a shred of credible evidence to support a charge of treason,” said the group’s Regional Director Nicholas Bequelin.
The trial begins at a politically delicate time for Hun Sen, as Cambodia faces likely trade sanctions from the European Union that could seriously damage its economy.
Hun Sen has been in power for 35 years and has vowed to serve two more five-year terms in office.