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Cambodia Prepares For Pivotal Kem Sokha Trial, Media Attendance Under Question

FILE PHOTO - Cambodia National Rescue Party's President Kem Sokha, right, talks with French Ambassador to Cambodia Eva Nguyen Binh, left, at his house in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Monday, Nov. 11, 2019.

Last week, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court said the courtroom for Kem Sokha’s trial can hold only 30 people.

Cambodians and stakeholders are preparing for the crucial treason trial of opposition leader Kem Sokha on Wednesday, even as authorities prepare heavy security arrangements and media attendance for the hearing was uncertain due to alleged lack of space in the courtroom.

The opposition leader will appear before a panel of three judges on January 15 for treason charges, potentially facing up to 30 years in prison. He has been accused of using assistance from foreign countries to unseat the Hun Sen government.

Kem Sokha’s legal team has said that he will attend the hearing, however, he has remained tight-lipped about their strategy going into the trial. Kem Monovithya, Kem Sokha’s eldest daughter and a former party member, said the trial was casting Cambodia in poor light.

“Everyone, including his supporters, his rivals, the court officials themselves, and the whole world, is certain that he is innocent,” Kem Monovithya told VOA Khmer.

Witnesses have been summoned for the Wednesday hearing, though there is no conclusive list of those summoned. This includes Ma Chetra and Hun Dara, citizen journalists for the pro-opposition Social Breaking News, Borei Keila land rights activist Sor Sorn, and former CNRP grassroots officials Khoeun Virath and Leng Vibol.

Little evidence has been presented by the government to support the charge against Kem Sokha, except for a video of the opposition leader from 2013 where he said he got assistance from the US to plan his political trajectory – evidence rejected by him and the US.

At the same time, Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak confirmed that security forces will be mobilized on Wednesday to maintain security during the trial.

“The National Police had already prepared a security plan that we would secure the safety for both Mr. Kem Sokha and all participants [attending his trial],” Khieu Sopheak told VOA Khmer last week.

Last week, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court said the courtroom for Kem Sokha’s trial can hold only 30 people. Journalists and NGO observers were informed on Monday that most of the seats were being given to embassy representatives, raising concerns over the quality of news coverage of the trial.

A court representative added that only after embassy representatives were accommodated would other attendees be considered and selected by the court.

Am Sam Ath, senior investigator at the local rights group Licadho, said the trial should be more open to the general public, given the enormity of the trial that had generated domestic and international interest.

“They should create a public [televised] screening of the trial process, just like the Khmer Rouge Tribunal,” Am Sam Ath said.

“By doing so, it would be good because it would show transparency and allow public participation in Kem Sokha’s trial.”

Court spokesperson Y Rin could not be reached for comment on Monday.

The trial has garnered a lot of interest in the United States and European Union, both of which have been accused of aiding Kem Sokha in his alleged plan to overthrow the government. Also, the EU Commission’s investigation to potentially suspend the Everything But Arms trade privileges will factor in the trial’s outcome.

It was also unclear if opposition supporters would be allowed to express their support for Kem Sokha, given that past court appearance and the dissolution of the CNRP saw barricades set up around courts and major streets blocking access.

Mao Sophat, a 72-year-old resident of Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district, said he would like to monitor the case because he had followed it since Kem Sokha’s arrest in 2017, and believed it was “politically motivated.”

“The trial of Kem Sokha is an international event that everyone would have their eyes on it,” he said. “I have learned that only thirty seats are available to the participants at the trial that leads me to a question if it will be enough,” said Mao Sophat.