Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha was sentenced to five months in prison on Friday for refusing to appear in court as hundreds of supporters gathered outside the Phnom Penh Municipal Court and hundreds more convened at the CNRP’s headquarters, where he has been holed up since May.
“The court sentences Kem Sokha to five months in prison,” Presiding Judge Keo Mony announced shortly after 2 p.m. The CNRP vice president was also ordered to pay a fine of 800,000 riel, or about $200.
Judge Mony said Mr. Sokha would be allowed to appeal the verdict. Court spokesman Ly Sophana declined to comment on how the case would proceed.
Mr. Sokha was tried in absentia during a one-hour morning trial, as he and his legal team decided to boycott the hearing in protest of the court’s refusal to recognize his Constitutional immunity from prosecution as a lawmaker.
Deputy prosecutor Sieng Sok told Judge Mony during the trial that Mr. Sokha had failed to heed two summonses, one issued on May 4 and a second on May 17.
“Kem Sokha refused to appear in court. This is a crime according to Article 538 of the Criminal Code,” he said. “The prosecutor maintains the charge against Kem Sokha. Please punish Kem Sokha according to the law.”
Refusal to appear in court without proper justification is punishable by between one and six months in prison, and a fine of 100,000 riel to 1 million riel, or about $25 to $250.
The legal pursuit of Mr. Sokha has been widely derided as a politically motivated effort by the government to smother the opposition. The case has seen fellow opposition officials, four human rights workers and an election official put behind bars.
In March, the government seized on a series of seemingly tapped telephone conversations, leaked online, that appear to feature Mr. Sokha speaking with a mistress–identified during ensuing investigations as 25-year-old hairdresser Khem Chandaraty.
Ms. Chandaraty initially denied that she was the woman in the recordings and sought legal counsel from rights group Adhoc amid an investigation led by anti-terrorism police, whose role in the case remains unexplained.
Under questioning in court over prostitution charges recommended by the anti-terrorism police, however, Ms. Chandaraty admitted to having an affair with Mr. Sokha, who refused to appear as a witness in the case.
The initial case against Ms. Chandaraty has seemingly stalled, but the court has pressed ahead with its prosecution of Mr. Sokha for not showing up as a witness, despite a litany of appeals filed by his lawyers insisting that he is constitutionally immune from such prosecution as an elected lawmaker.
Invoking an exception to parliamentary immunity, the government has argued that Mr. Sokha was caught in the act of a committing a crime when he failed to appear, and therefore could be prosecuted with his immunity intact.
The CNRP argues that the ruling party’s interpretation of the “in flagrante delicto” clause is illegal and simply meant to skirt its inability to revoke immunity, which would require a two-thirds vote in parliament. The CPP holds 68 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly.
Apart from ignoring his legal immunity, Mr. Sokha’s lawyers also say the court has violated legal procedures by fast-tracking his trial. The Supreme Court is yet to rule on an appeal filed earlier this week that called for the case to be thrown out.
The U.N.’s human rights office in Geneva issued a statement on Tuesday saying that the “weak evidentiary basis of the charges and the accompanying procedural flaws raise serious concerns about the fairness of the proceedings.”
“We urge the authorities to adhere strictly to international fair trial standards during the criminal proceedings, including ensuring transparency in the administration of justice,” it said.
At the CNRP’s headquarters on Friday morning, Mr. Sokha–flanked by fellow lawmakers–delivered a scripted 10-minute speech to a few hundred supporters.
“I believe that the national and international opinion is that the use of the judicial system to attack me–the acting leader of the CNRP, the biggest political competitor of the ruling party today–is in order to stop me from participating in upcoming elections,” Mr. Sokha said.
“The use of judicial system to attack my political and electoral rights does not only undermine the fairness of the elections, but, moreover, is an attack on the principles of liberal multi-party democracy enshrined in the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia.”