The U.S. Ambassador to Cambodia issued a rare statement Thursday on the ongoing treason trial of opposition leader Kem Sokha, praising the veteran politician and denouncing what he said were “fabricated conspiracy theories about the United States” introduced by the prosecution.
Kem Sokha, the head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was arrested in September 2017 for allegedly conspiring to overthrow Hun Sen’s government, and his party was banned by the Supreme Court two months later for its role in the alleged plot with a foreign country.
Ambassador Patrick Murphy, who took up his post last October, attended the trial, which resume this week after a series of postponements.
“We are very troubled to see that the trial prosecutor has introduced into the court room fabricated conspiracy theories about the United States,” he said in a statement after the hearing at Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
“The court proceedings have potential implications for rule of law and due process in Cambodia and for Cambodia’s foreign relations,” said Murphy.
“Mr. Kem Sokha has a very well-deserved reputation around the world as a champion for human rights and freedoms. We look forward to seeing his political rights restored, just like we look forward to seeing the potential and the possibility for all Cambodians to participate in the political process here in Cambodia,” the envoy added.
Murphy’s statement followed remarks Tuesday by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who threatened to revoke Kem Sokha’s bail and send him to jail for trying to avoid punishment for crimes the prosecution says are proved by a heavily edited video recorded four years earlier in which he discusses a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts.
“The United States has contributed almost 3 billion dollars in recent decades in assistance to Cambodia including transparent assistance to strengthening institutions and political parties in line with Cambodia constitution. Our assistance has been available for all political parties including the governing CPP party and many government institutions,” said Murphy.
“My government has made abundantly clear that the United States has never sought to interfere in Cambodia’s governance. We fully respect Cambodia’s independence and sovereignty,” he added.
Responding to Murphy’s remarks, a spokesperson for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s Prosecution Office issued a statement saying that that the prosecution has made no accusation against Washington.
“The prosecutor accused only Kem Sokha on both legal and factual bases as fully backed up by all components of the offense in accordance with Cambodia’s law.”
Kem Sokha maintains his innocence and his lawyers have all along said that prosecutors lack evidence to convict.
Political commentator Em Sovannara told RFA’s Khmer Service that he thought Murphy’s remarks represented “a statement to prove its irrelevance (in the case) and that it is not complicit in this conspiracy.”
The Kem Sokha case, which also saw his Cambodian National Rescue Party disbanded under a court order, has not helped Cambodia’s already poor reputation for rule of law and judicial independence.
In a report released on Wednesday by the World Justice Project, Cambodia placed 15th out of 15 countries surveyed in the East Asia and Pacific region for adherence to rule of law. The WJP Rule of Law Index also placed Cambodia 127th out of the 128 countries surveyed for their rule-of-law performance.
The U.S. State Department, meanwhile, in its annual report on human rights around the world, cited Kem Sokha’s case as an example of the government’s violation of laws prohibiting arbitrary arrest and detention.
“The government in some cases did not respect these prohibitions, notably with the arbitrary detention of former CNRP leader Kem Sokha well beyond the legal limit,” said the report.
“As of November, Kem Sokha had spent 26 months in pretrial detention before the government partially lifted judicial restrictions, effectively releasing him from house arrest, but not allowing him to travel abroad or engage in political activity. In addition, the charges of treason against him still stand and he remains under court supervision,” it said.