Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha was sentenced to five months in prison on Friday for refusing to appear in court as a witness in a related “prostitution” case involving his alleged mistress.
The CNRP vice president did not attend his one-hour trial in the morning and remained holed up in the party’s headquarters on Friday night. There was no immediate attempt to arrest him.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the verdict “must be implemented” but would not say when this might happen. Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Ly Sophana declined to say how authorities would proceed.
Hundreds of supporters spilled onto the street in front of the CNRP’s headquarters in the morning, chanting “Hooray, National Rescue Party!” When Mr. Sokha finally appeared to loud cheers, he slammed the government’s attempt to marginalize him.
“I believe that 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,” he said.
“The use of the 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.”
Mr. Sokha and his legal team boycotted the trial, held in response to his failure to appear before the municipal court as a witness in what officials have described as a prostitution case.
Shortly after 2 p.m., Presiding Judge Keo Mony announced the guilty verdict, five-month prison sentence and a fine of 800,000 riel, or about $200.
Mr. Sokha has 30 days to appeal the decision. If he decides not to appeal—or if the appeal is rejected—he will be stripped of his role as a lawmaker, according to CPP spokesman Sok Eysan.
“If the verdict is finalized, His Excellency Kem Sokha will no longer be a member of the National Assembly and he will have no rights, no privileges and no immunity,” Mr. Eysan said. “So everything will be easy at that time.”
“We will wait to see whether or not he will appeal with the Appeal Court. If he sticks with his proclaimed philosophy of ‘no answer, no response, no argument,’ I believe he will not file an appeal with the Appeal Court,” he added.
However, Sam Sokong, a defense lawyer for Mr. Sokha, said his client would appeal the verdict because the trial was held before the Supreme Court had decided on a complaint alleging procedural irregularities in the case.
In addition to those gathered at the CNRP’s headquarters, hundreds of supporters also congregated outside the municipal courthouse.
Security guards arrested CNRP official Um Dara for using a loudspeaker to call for Mr. Sokha’s acquittal. Mr. Dara was freed following two hours of questioning.
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 rights workers and an election official put behind bars.
In Mr. Sokha’s case, the government seized on a series of recorded telephone conversations, leaked online, that appear to feature Mr. Sokha speaking with a woman who was later identified as 25-year-old hairdresser Khom 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. The four jailed rights workers are senior Adhoc officers, who allegedly attempted to bribe Ms. Chandaraty while working on her case.
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 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.
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.
In a statement on Friday, the CNRP branded the verdict “politically motivated and baseless.”
It noted the unprecedented move to charge someone for not appearing as a witness, citing the Khmer Rouge tribunal, where multiple requests for CPP officials—including National Assembly President Heng Samrin—to appear before the court have been ignored.
“Even the Khmer Rouge Tribunal summoned some people to testify in the case for the crime of genocide, and those persons refused to appear at the court,” the statement said.
“The courts never laid charges against those persons, only Kem Sokha.”
(Additional reporting by Sek Odom, George Wright and Colin Meyn)