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Politics

Cambodia begins treason trial of opposition leader Kem Sokha

Case has repercussions for nation's favored trade status with EU

Cambodia's opposition leader Kem Sokha speaks to reporters outside his before leaving for his trial in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. Image made from video.   © AP

PHNOM PENH -- More than two years since his arrest on treason charges, the trial of Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha began Wednesday in a case that has repercussions for the country's trade privileges with Europe.

Sokha, president of the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was detained in a midnight raid in September 2017. He was later charged with "conspiracy with foreign power," an offense that carries up to 30 years of jail time. After a year in prison he was placed under house arrest in late 2018 -- conditions that were relaxed in November.

Critics say the case is bogus and part of a broad crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen against opponents.

Authorities accused Sokha of conspiring with Washington to topple the government of Hun Sen, who has ruled for more than three decades. As evidence of the ostensible "coup," they pointed to a 2013 video in which he spoke about receiving U.S. advice to build political support.

Sokha released a statement on Facebook on Wednesday, in which he categorically denied the charge.

"All of my activities were focused on human rights and democracy, carried out in peaceful and non-violent manners in accordance with the Constitution of the Kingdom of Cambodia," the statement read.

"My political activities were focused on the participation in free, fair, and just elections that truly reflect the will of the Cambodian people... I continue to demand that the court permanently drop the charge against me so that I can fully exercise my political freedom in participation in serving and defending the interests of the country and the people."

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen has led the country for 35 years, turning it into a de facto one party state. Critics say the case against Kem Sokha is bogus and part of a broad crackdown by Hun Sen against opponents.   © Reuters

Sokha, 66, arrived at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court around 7:30 a.m. for the first day of proceedings. Government lawyer Ky Tech said the case would involve 27 witnesses, and the alleged conspiracy was linked to several countries and nongovernment organizations.

Kem Sokha's lawyer, Meng Sopheary, said the prosecution's case was based on edited video. The footage -- a two minute clip of Sokha's 2013 speech -- was played to the court this morning. Sopheary said his team planned to play more of the original video of the speech next week.

The hearings are expected to last three months, according to a court official who spoke with Voice of America.

The trial could therefore run past the European Union's Feb. 12 deadline for a final decision on whether to withdraw Cambodia's duty-free market access to the bloc under its Everything But Arms scheme. This could increase the likelihood that Cambodia will lose its preferential status.

The case is among the chief concerns behind the EU's review of the country's EBA eligibility over what it describes as "severe" human rights violations.

These concerns are shared by rights groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, which slammed the prosecution of Sokha as a "mockery of justice" and a "show trial."

"The European Union has repeatedly raised Kem Sokha's case in the context of an ongoing review of Cambodia's trade preferences," said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch's deputy Asia director.

"Given the shoddy, rights abusing way the government has treated Kem Sokha, and the government's failure to make any serious progress on other rights issues, the EU will be fully justified if it takes harsh action next month to enforce the human rights provisions contained in the EBA agreement."

The EBA grants duty and quota free access to the bloc for all exports except weapons and ammunition. Losing it could be disastrous for the country's 750,000-worker strong apparel and footwear sector, which generated more than $8 billion in exports in 2018.

Sokha's arrest and the subsequent ban of the CNRP, the main opposition group, saw Hun Sen's ruling party take all parliamentary seats in the 2018 national election, turning the country into a de facto one party state.

Rife with corruption and political influence, Cambodia's court system is among the lowest ranked in the world, according to the World Justice Project.

Astrid Noren-Nilsson, an associate senior lecturer at the Centre for East and Southeast Asian Studies at Sweden's Lund University, said there was little chance Sokha would be acquitted.

"An acquittal would undermine the government's accusation of treason," she said.

"The most realistic scenario for an eventual release would be a guilty verdict followed by a royal pardon."

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