A court in Cambodia on Wednesday heard closing arguments in the trial of opposition leader Kem Sokha, who faces unsubstantiated charges of treason.
Kem Sokha was detained in 2017 after the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which had been the main opposition party at the time, made significant gains in local commune elections. He was placed under house arrest, but was released prior to the beginning of his trial which has dragged on for more than two years.
In the final arguments on Wednesday, the prosecution recommended that the court reimpose Kem Sokha’s detention and sentence him to a long prison term. It said that in addition to criminal prosecution for treason, the government plans to seek civil compensation and damages.
The court is scheduled to announce the trial’s verdict on March 3 – just four months before Cambodians go to the polls to vote in the 2023 general election.
As he exited the courtroom at around 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Kem Sokha told reporters that the court had relied on “fake evidence.”
“The verdict has not been rendered,” he said, and claimed that video evidence the prosecution used against him was edited with the intent to defame him.
Kem Sokha’s lawyer Meng Sopheary told reporters that her client was neither involved with a revolution nor had led violent demonstrations against the government, and said the video evidence was edited in such a way as to prove these allegations.
“I don’t know about the court’s decision but our closing argument has cleared allegations against my client,” she said.
Another lawyer, Peng Heng, said Kem Sokha has maintained his innocence and urged the court and government to drop charges against him.
“He wants the court to show that he is innocent so he can return to serving his country,” he said.
Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved and outlawed the Cambodia National Rescue Party following Kem Sokha’s arrest, which paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party to take every seat in the country’s National Assembly in the 2018 general election.
The ban kicked off a five-year crackdown on the political opposition, with many of those affiliated with the illegal party arrested and detained on charges like conspiracy, incitement, and treason.
Political commentator Seng Sary told RFA’s Khmer Service that even though the prosecutor referred the court to convict Kem Sokha, he believes the court will drop charges against him.
“I am optimistic that Kem Sokha will get justice,” he said, explaining that Cambodia can ill afford to convict him and face more economic pressure from the international community.
Another political commentator Kim Sok, told RFA that the court would likely issue a light sentence against Kem Sokha.
“But I don’t expect he gets full freedom. The verdict will be difficult to understand,” he said.
Ruling party spokesman Sok Ey San told RFA that the government used a speech delivered by Kem Sokha in Australia in 2013 to charge him with treason.
“He said he was proud that he succeeded [in collusion with foreign countries] but it turned out to be a win for the government,” said Sok Ey San.
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