Sokha to Boycott Trial; Supporters Blocked

Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha and his lawyers are set to boycott his trial this morning for refusal to appear in court, while CNRP supporters expected to travel to Phnom Penh for a rally in his support will have to make it through police checkpoints surrounding the city. 

Mr. Sokha has been inside the CNRP’s headquarters in Meanchey district since May 26, when police unsuccessfully tried to arrest him for failing to appear in court for questioning over his alleged mistress’ “prostitution” case. Party officials have said he had no plans to exit the refuge for today’s trial.

Razor-wire barricades and a police truck carrying riot shields sit on the side of National Road 6 in Kandal province on Thursday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Razor-wire barricades and a police truck carrying riot shields sit on the side of National Road 6 in Kandal province on Thursday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

His lawyers have attended the court on his behalf for questioning since May, but said that they would not do so today.

“The stance of Kem Sokha’s lawyers is that we will not take part in tomorrow’s hearing because we have clear reasons written in our submission demanding that the trial…be suspended,” Meng Sopheary, one of his lawyers, said on Thursday.

Mr. Sokha’s legal team has argued that the case should be dismissed because he has immunity from prosecution as an elected lawmaker and that the trial should be postponed until the Supreme Court decides on a complaint alleging procedural irregularities in the case.

However, Ly Sophana, a spokesman for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, has said that nothing will prevent the case from going forward, and he reiterated that on Thursday.

“The trial hearing will proceed as planned,” he said.

The CNRP says it expects a few thousand supporters to gather in front of its headquarters on National Road 2—to monitor the situation and show support for Mr. Sokha—and more backers to congregate at the courthouse.

However, police have placed roadblocks on all the highways leading into the capital in order to monitor opposition supporters entering the city, and provincial party leaders said on Thursday that police in the countryside had already started blocking CNRP officials.

Ouk Saroeun, an elected CNRP district councilor for Svay Rieng province’s Chantrea district, said that two CNRP commune councilors, Nhim Sophal of Samraong and Meas Kong of Tuol Sdei, had been detained by police about 8 km from the provincial capital and stopped from going to Phnom Penh.

“They were traveling by motorbike to come to Phnom Penh for a meeting at the party’s headquarters, but the police chased them, stopped them and held them for a few hours before setting them free after the pair agreed to go home,” Mr. Saroeun said.

“When I intervened, the district police chief told me that he could not allow the pair to go to Phnom Penh, and he told me that we should allow national officials to solve the issues,” he added.

A truck with 30 elected commune and district councilors from the CNRP was also stopped in the nearby Romeas Hek district while on their way to Phnom Penh and the officials were forced to disembark, he said.

Deputy provincial governor Pich Savann said he was unaware of any such events. Chantrea district police chief So Sithorn acknowledged stopping Mr. Kong and Mr. Sophal, but denied requiring them to return home.

“No, we did not detain them,” Mr. Sithorn said. “We just asked where they were going, and then we let them go where they wanted to.”

Romeas Hek district officials could not be reached.

The CNRP issued a statement on Thursday condemning today’s trial of Mr. Sokha and the trial of fellow CNRP lawmaker Um Sam An earlier this week.

“The members of the National Assembly from the CNRP condemn the use of power violating the parliamentary privilege of the members of the CNRP National Assembly by the ruling people who just use the judiciary as a political tool,” the statement said.

The CPP has relied upon a broad interpretation of an exception to immunity for lawmakers caught “red-handed” committing a crime, arguing that Mr. Sokha’s failure to appear in court for questioning over his alleged mistress’ case fit the bill.

The CNRP has argued that the National Assembly must still strip Mr. Sokha of his immunity after an arrest to proceed with his prosecution, and has only invented a broad interpretation because it does not have the votes to do so.

The journey to the court case today has been a long and winding one. Mr. Sokha initially was accused of taking 25-year-old hairdresser Khom Chandaraty as a mistress after dozens of apparently wiretapped telephone conversations surfaced online in late February and early March.

The recordings, which appeared to have been recorded by a third party from Mr. Sokha’s end, and often included the outgoing dial tone, were posted online over a period of weeks, on Facebook and the CPP-aligned Fresh News website.

Ms. Chandaraty at first denied the affair, but later admitted to it after anti-terrorism police recommended to the court that she be charged with “prostitution” for allegedly receiving gifts from the deputy opposition leader during their relationship.

Mr. Sokha, who has refused to confirm or deny the affair and claimed the issue was invented by the CPP as a smear campaign, has refused to go for questioning over the “prostitution” case, citing his immunity.

Police tried to arrest him near the CNRP headquarters on May 26, based on his failure to appear, but could not find him. They were not allowed in the building—where he was hiding—by opposition officials and supporters standing outside.

Ms. Chandaraty’s case has not proceeded with any urgency since May, while Mr. Sokha’s has been fast-tracked, despite numerous appeals. He faces up to six months in prison if found guilty.

A guilty verdict would also allow the CPP-controlled National Assembly to strip him of his lawmaker status, as it did with opposition leader Sam Rainsy in November after the courts revealed he had an outstanding defamation conviction.

Kem Monovithya, Mr. Sokha’s daughter and the CNRP’s deputy public affairs director, said nobody was fooled by the CPP’s claims that courts were acting independently.

“The court system in Cambodia is a circus and it’s apparent to both national and international opinions,” she said in an email.

“The CPP uses it as their main tool to harass and arrest dissenting voices. They can make any ridiculous case against someone they want jailed.”

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