Opposition leader Kem Sokha said the United States government did not recommend he start a “Yugoslavia” style revolution in Cambodia and that the Cambodian Center for Human Rights was not used as a platform to instigate a grassroots uprising against Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The fourth day of Kem Sokha’s treason trial resumed in Phnom Penh on Thursday, focusing again on his work as a politician and head of human rights NGO CCHR, between 1993 and 2007, frequently looping back to the alleged “treason” video.
The alleged “treason” video of Kem Sokha is a speech he gave in Australia in 2013, following the national elections, when the opposition and ruling party were in a political stalemate over electoral results. The government and prosecution have said in court that his speech confirms his guilt.
The court admitted into evidence a 1-hour segment of the video on Wednesday, after the defense took objection to a 2-minute edited clip of the same speech, used by the prosecution last week, because it was misleading.
In the video, Kem Sokha refers to a study trip he took to the U.S. as a parliamentarian in 1993. Thereafter, in the rest of the speech, Kem Sokha uses the pronoun “they” while referring to advice he got to quit politics, work with grassroots groups, start an NGO or recommendations he was given to use the “Yugoslavia model,” referring to the ousting of former Yugoslavian and Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Deputy prosecutor Vong Bunvisoth asked Kem Sokha who he was referring to when he used the pronoun “they,” later alleging that the opposition leader was talking about the U.S. government.
Kem Sokha said that his use of the word “they” in the 2013 speech was at times for the U.S. government, but also for the Cambodian diaspora in the U.S.
“When I said Americans, it means Cambodian-American who live there,” he said. “Sometimes I meant the people, sometimes I meant the government.”
He added that references in his speech to the suggestion that he use the “Yugoslavia model” in Cambodia, was made by his supporters in the Cambodian-American diaspora, and not the U.S. government.
“That is what Khmer Americans said,” he said, responding to queries from government lawyer Ly Chantola. “They brought up this model.”
In a heated exchange, Ly Chantola questioned Kem Sokha for around five minutes about his physical ailments, and then took umbrage to why Kem Sokha was allowed to sit on a chair while being cross-examined. Usually, witnesses or the accused stand up in court when being questioned.
Presiding Judge Kuy Sao intervened to say that he had allowed Kem Sokha to sit or stand, as per his preference, during the questioning, but Ly Chantola insisted that the opposition leader stand during questioning.
Pointing back to the “treason” speech, Ly Chantola asked what Kem Sokha meant when he talked about “studying” strategies. And why had he asked his audience during the Australia speech whether they wanted change.
The reference is to the CNRP’s popular slogan of “change or no change,” to which supporters would respond “change.”
Kem Sokha answered that his strategy had been to educate the ignorant, feed the hungry and empower the fearful, a strategy he had developed through his research as a politician and human rights activist.
He said that his asking the people if they wanted change did not mean he was suggesting the use of violent tactics, but that he was advocating for “non-violent” change through democratic means.
Then, he took umbrage to Ly Chantola asking the same questions multiple times, at one point accusing the government lawyer of “putting words” in his mouth.
“You don’t have to lecture me,” he said. “You just do your work to accuse me.”
The government lawyers, during their questioning of Kem Sokha on Thursday, looked to draw a link between Kem Sokha’s grassroots work at CCHR and the post-election protests in 2013. They claimed the aim of his human rights advocacy was to instigate the 2013 protests.
While the morning session was meant to focus on his activities between 1993 and 2007, a lot of the questioning did not fall within that timeframe.
However, the prosecution did ask about the formation of CCHR, then-deputy director Pa Nguon Teang’s role in the registration of the NGO, the drafting of its internal policies, the NGO’s finances and its recruitment policies.
More specifically, deputy prosecutor Bunvisoth asked about a conflict at CCHR involving Chhim Phal Virun, a former staffer at the NGO and now-CPP spokesperson.
Chhim Phal Virun had sued Kem Sokha in 2006 for alleged breach of trust and alleged that the opposition leader had embezzled money from the NGO, but details of this controversy or why it was relevant to a treason trial were not provided in court.
Kem Sokha refused to answer any questions about Chhim Phal Virun’s testimony, adding that his former colleague had a conflict of interest.
“He has a conflict of interest,” Kem Sokha said. “He is the member of the ruling party and they have made this [treason] complaint against me.”
This line of questioning then introduced multiple individuals, but again little reasoning was provided by the prosecution for naming these people.
This included Lazar Antonic, then resident program officer for the International Republican Institute (IRI), which was funding CCHR with a USAID grant, the prosecution said. The prosecution claimed that Antonic was responsible for solving the conflict with Chhim Phal Virun.
Other individuals mentioned in the cross-examining were “Cheu Anna”, “Kim Thon” and “Kry Song”, but the prosecution did not clarify why Kem Sokha was asked about these people or their links to the trial.
Thursday’s hearing had some heated moments when the defense and prosecution accused each other of not following court procedures or being “disrespectful”. The prosecutors often chided the defense and Kem Sokha for their conduct in court, with little intervention from the presiding judge.
The council of judges announced at the end of the morning session that the trial will resume next Wednesday, January 29, again canceling the afternoon session. Last Thursday, the afternoon session was canceled to give the defense a chance to submit evidence it planned to present in court.