Cambodia opposition chief Kem Sokha’s appeal hearing against his provisional detention on charges of treason will take place without him due to “security concerns,” a government-aligned media outlet reported Monday, prompting his lawyers to threaten to boycott the proceedings.
Kem Sokha, head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was arrested without a warrant in the capital Phnom Penh on Sept. 3 and accused of treason in a move critics say shows Prime Minister Hun Sen is intensifying his attacks on political opponents ahead of national elections scheduled for 2018.
CNRP lawmakers have been turned away from visiting him at Trapeang Phlong Prison in Tbong Khmum province after the investigating judge in the case said that only the party leader’s family members and lawyers may see him before his trial.
On Monday, Fresh News quoted Ministry of Interior spokesperson Khieu Sopheak as saying Kem Sokha will not be brought to his Tuesday hearing due to “security concerns,” after the ministry learned that the “third hand” may incite crowds planning to gather at the Appeals Court in the capital.
While Khieu Sopheak did not provide details on who the ministry believes may try to stir up trouble at the hearing, his comments followed a Sept. 3 statement by Hun Sen in response to Kem Sokha’s arrest in which he referred to the U.S. government as the “third hand” in a plot by Cambodia’s opposition to overthrow his government.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Monday, Kem Sokha’s lawyer Som Sokong said that no one on the opposition chief’s legal team had received official notice of the Ministry of Interior’s decision.
He said that he and the four other lawyers representing Kem Sokha plan to attend the hearing Tuesday to challenge the court over the CNRP president’s absence, rather than the substance of his appeal.
“We will attend to debate the procedures regarding the failure by the authorities to bring Kem Sokha to the hearing,” he said.
“We will also look into the relevant international laws on this matter. We stand by our position that Kem Sokha’s presence is necessary in all judicial proceedings. Any hearing must be conducted in the presence of the charged person.”
Som Sokhong added that if the court decides to continue with the appeal against provisional detention in Kem Sokha’s absence, his legal team will need to consider whether to boycott the proceedings.
The concerns from Kem Sokha’s legal team came as senior CNRP Member of Parliament Son Chhay said he plans to lead several of his fellow opposition lawmakers and activists to the Appeals Court Tuesday to observe the hearing.
“We will also decide whether we remain in the courtroom to observe the proceedings if Kem Sokha’s lawyers choose to leave—we will cross that bridge when we come to it,” he said during a press conference he chaired at CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh.
Son Chhay also revealed details of the opposition party’s advocacy campaign for the release of its leader, which kicked off in Kampong Cham Monday, saying posters bearing Kem Sokha’s image and a call for his immediate and unconditional release would be posted at CNRP offices throughout the country.
Responding to the CNRP’s plans, ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesperson Sok Eysan said in a statement Monday that the opposition was “walking into a fish trap.”
“This demonstrates that the whole opposition party is undeniably involved in the movement to topple the legitimate government, just like Kem Sokha,” he said.
Sok Eysan warned that the CNRP would not be exempt from the recently amended Law on Political Parties, which bans parties from associating with or using the voice, image, or written documents of anyone convicted of a criminal offense.
“The opposition party will face the newly amended law on political parties,” he said.
“If the Ministry of Interior finds that the opposition is guilty of any breaches under the new law, it can propose that the Appeals Court investigate. The fate of the opposition will be at the mercy of the mitigating circumstances.”
Son Chhay hit back at the CPP spokesperson, maintaining that the CNRP’s campaign is in adherence to law, and advising Sok Eysan to “study the constitution.”
“Kem Sokha remains innocent—the courts have not found him guilty of any crimes—and the party is advocating for his release to find justice for him,” he said.
“I also call for restraint from threats and intimidation against those who are exercising their rights guaranteed by the constitution.”
The opposition lawmaker expressed hope that a solution might be found to ease political tensions in Cambodia, calling for dialogue with the assistance of the international community, and suggesting that the country’s King Norodom Sihamoni could play a role in improving the current climate.
“Our former king used to play a much-needed role in finding solutions to Cambodia’s conflicts and I believe that our current king may intervene in this current crisis,” he said of Sihamoni, who is currently abroad in an undisclosed location seeking medical treatment.
“I am optimistic about dialogue. We shouldn’t be perceived as a nation that is always involved in internal conflict and we should be able to find a way out soon.”
Son Chhay’s hopes for an intervention by the king followed a letter published on Sunday by veteran politician Lu Lay Sreng, a former senior member of the royalist Funcinpec party, calling on Sihamoni to return to Cambodia to help mediate between the CPP and CNRP.
“We are saddened and worried, as our hearts lack comfort in this toxic environment, after the Law on Political Parties was amended, NGOs have been shut down, and several radio stations and independent media outlets were banned,” the letter said.
“The two main political parties are now locking horns. We would find comfort again if you return to Cambodia to mediate for a solution to this.”
Since Aug. 22, the government has expelled U.S.-funded NGO the National Democratic Institute (NDI), suspended some 20 radio stations that aired content by U.S. broadcasters Radio Free Asia and Voice of America, and targeted the English-language Cambodia Daily with a hefty tax bill, leading to the outlet’s closure.