(Bangkok) – The Phnom Penh municipal court on March 3, 2023, found the Cambodian political opposition leader Kem Sokha guilty of treason and sentenced him to a 27 year prison sentence, and indefinitely suspended his political rights to vote and to stand for election. Cambodian authorities should quash this politically motivated conviction and immediately and unconditionally release him, Human Rights Watch said today.
Sokha is the former president of the dissolved main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Since his arrest in 2017, Sokha has been subject to arbitrary detention, mistreatment in custody, and a ban on participating in any political activity.
“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,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “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.”
Around midnight on September 3, 2017, personnel from Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit led approximately 100 police officers armed with automatic assault rifles to arrest Sokha at his home in Phnom Penh. An investigating judge subsequently charged him with treason and “colluding with foreigners” under article 443 of the Cambodian criminal code, which carries a penalty of up to 30 years in prison.
Sokha and his lawyers denied all charges and said that the case against him was baseless and politically motivated. Government prosecutors maintained that he was involved in a long-running scheme of foreign collusion to overthrow the government. He was immediately stripped of his parliamentary immunity on the grounds that he was caught in the flagrant and immediate act of committing a crime, even though the primary evidence against him was a video of a speech he gave in Australia in 2013, in which he discussed peacefully campaigning for democratic change in Cambodia.
Following Sokha’s arrest, the Cambodian government sought the legal dissolution of his party. The government-controlled Supreme Court, led by a chief justice who was a member of the central committee of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), ordered the party dissolved in November 2017. Many senior party leaders fled into exile, fearing arrest. On July 29, 2018, Cambodia organized elections in which there were no significant opposition parties or candidates. The ruling party won all 125 seats in the National Assembly, effectively turning Cambodia into a single-party state.
Following his arrest, Sokha spent over two years in pre-trial detention in the remote Tboung Khmum provincial Correction Center III prison. Prison authorities denied him appropriate medical treatment and held him in isolation while refusing access to all visitors other than his immediate family and his lawyers. On June 5, 2018, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, a body of independent experts, declared Sokha’s pretrial detention “arbitrary” and “politically motivated,” and called on the Cambodian authorities to immediately release him.
Facing immense international pressure and concerns about his deteriorating health, Cambodian authorities finally released Sokha in September 2018 and placed him in de facto house arrest under judicial supervision.
On November 10, 2019, Cambodian authorities lifted Sokha’s judicial supervision arrangement, allowing him to leave his home and seek medical attention but continued to ban him from all political activity, as well as from leaving the country. The move came two days before the European Union, Cambodia’s largest trading partner, delivered its preliminary conclusions on Cambodia’s non-compliance with international human rights treaties in its review of Cambodia’s actions under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) treaty.
On February 12, 2020, the EU announced its decision to partially withdraw tariff preferences granted to Cambodia under the treaty “due to the serious and systematic violations of … human rights principles.” In March 2022, the EU passed a resolution calling for the international community to “apply pressure and take public actions to provide protection for activists and human rights defenders,” while also noting that the Sokha trial leaves “the politician stripped of fundamental rights of political participation.”
Covid-19 delays suspended Sokha’s trial through all of 2021 before it resumed in January 2022. UN experts stated that they “have strong grounds to believe that the treason charge against Mr. Sokha is politically motivated and forms part of a larger pattern of the misapplication of laws to target political opponents and critics of the Government” and that the “entire process of Mr. Sokha’s arrest and detention has been tainted by irregularities, and clear neglect of international human rights law and Cambodian law.”
In their closing arguments in the trial, government prosecutors claimed Sokha’s founding of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, a human rights organization, and later the 2012 merger of his Human Rights Party with the other leading opposition party, the Sam Rainsy Party, were the result of foreign interference. They called on the judge to deliver a very serious penalty and to strip Sokha of his right to participate in politics.
Prosecutors also opened mass trials in 2021 against other political opposition members that continued into 2022. The defendants included more than 100 people connected with Sokha’s dissolved CNRP, as well as civil society activists. Prosecutors claimed the defendants engaged in “incitement to commit a felony” by exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association, and peaceful public assembly. On June 14, 2022, a Phnom Penh court convicted at least 51 CNRP members and political activists on unsupported charges of “incitement” and “conspiracy.” A total of 27 defendants are currently in exile and were tried in absentia. Another 36 convictions were handed down several months later, again as part of a mass trial.
In a public speech in January 2023, Prime Minister Hun Sen told his political opponents to prepare to be assaulted and that he could, “gather people belonging to the CPP to protest and beat you.” After several more explicit threats, the prime minister concluded with a final warning to opposition members: “Be careful. If I can’t control my temper, you will be devastated.”
“Kem Sokha’s case highlights the Cambodian judiciary’s total lack of independence and the ruling party’s ability to control Cambodia’s political environment to its own liking,” Robertson said. “Governments that have sought for decades to promote a rights-respecting Cambodia should use this nonsensical and punitive verdict to reassess their approach to Hun Sen’s government.”