Cambodia begins treason trial of Kem Sokha

Cambodia National Rescue Party former president Kem Sokha greets journalists after meeting with Australian Ambassador to Cambodia Angela Corcoran in his house in Phnom Penh Nov. 12 2019

He is accused of conspiring with the United States government to illegally overthrow the Cambodian government. She said Sokha had rejected the two-minute video clip played in court, saying it was misleading after being cut and edited.

Most reporters were barred from court, but his lawyer revealed Mr Sokha was accused of receiving U.S. support.

Authorities justified the arrest on the basis that the crime was "flagrant", even though the only evidence presented was a video of a speech by Sokha from 2013.

"An acquittal would undermine the government's accusation of treason", she said.

These concerns are shared by rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which slammed the prosecution of Sokha as a "mockery of justice" and a "show trial".

Koul Panha, the previous government director of and at the moment an advisor to native electoral watchdog Comfrel, stated he expects the federal government can have Kem Sokha's trial delayed "for a long time" in order that the CPP can "use his case for political negotiation with the opposition to appear that they are easing political tensions when they are pressured by the worldwide community".

He could be imprisoned for up to 30 years if found guilty.

Government lawyer Ky Tech told RFA that there had been "heated exchanges" during Wednesday's trial-where a total of 30 seats were largely reserved for diplomats, relatives, and CNRP members-but refused to provide details of what was discussed for "reasons of professionalism". The video has been presented as the main evidence that the opposition leader plotted to overthrow the government. Ky Tech did not specify whether the court plans to summon representatives of those countries to appear at the trial. He maintains his innocence and his lawyers have said that prosecutors lack evidence to convict.

Mr Sokha was released on bail soon after the 2018 election but kept under house arrest until November.

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Following his arrest, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen cracked down on opposition, civil society groups and media in the run-up to 2018 parliament elections.

He has issued a statement denying all charges and demanding the case be dropped.

"I did NOT bring in any foreign state or foreign agents to conduct hostilities or an invasion against the Kingdom of Cambodia".

Just days before the start of the trial, the court announced that only a small group of people would be allowed inside the courtroom, meaning that most observers - including most journalists - had to wait outside. "I want to see what evidence they show ..."

More than two years since his arrest on treason charges, the trial of Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha began Wednesday in a case that has repercussions for the country's trade privileges with Europe.

CNRP acting president Sam Rainsy also took to Facebook on Wednesday to call the trial a farce and accuse the court of acting as "Hun Sen's puppet". "I have never done anything wrong so the court has to drop the charges". In the speech, he talked about receiving support from the U.S. to create change in the country from a grassroots level. Cambodia's courts are considered to be under government influence. "It is essential that human rights monitors and journalists are given unhindered access to the trial".

"We hope that he will be acquitted if the court has any interest at all in starting to demonstrate its independence", said Monovithya Kem according to Reuters.

The hearings are expected to last three months, according to a court official who spoke with Voice of America.

To relieve worldwide pressure, the government might reach for a compromise to the Kem Sokha issue, said Ou Virak, director of Phnom Penh-based think tank Future Forum and former chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

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