Trial of Cambodian opposition party chief set for next month

SOPHENG CHEANG

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — A Cambodian court announced Monday that the trial on treason charges of opposition leader Kem Sokha will begin next month, more than two years after he was arrested.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court said in a statement that the trial of Kem Sokha, president of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, will start Jan. 15.

Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 and charged with treason for having links to a U.S.-based democracy promotion organization. He could be imprisoned for up to 30 years if found guilty.

His party was dissolved by court order in November 2017 in what was widely seen as a political maneuver by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen to ensure that his ruling Cambodian People's Party would face no serious opposition in the 2018 general election. At the same time, there was a crackdown on media to silence critical voices.

Hun Sen's party won all the seats in the National Assembly, but drew condemnation from human rights groups and Western nations, which charged that the polls were neither free nor fair. Hun Sen has been in power for 34 years and has vowed to serve two more 5-year terms in office.

In response, the U.S. and Germany instituted some diplomatic sanctions against Cambodia because of its repressive political climate.

The European Union began a process that could result in its withdrawal of preferential duty-free and quota-free status for imports from Cambodia because of deficiencies in labor and human rights. The threatened action could badly hurt the Cambodia economy, which depends heavily on exports of low-cost textiles and footwear.

Cambodia is one of several developing nations with whom the EU has an "Everything But Arms" — or EBA -- program granting preferential access to the European market for products other than weapons.

Cambodian politics heated up in November, when exiled Sam Rainsy, co-founder with Kem Sokha of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, launched a well-publicized trip home to lead a non-violent mass movement to oust Hun Sen. He has been in self-imposed overseas exile for four years to avoid serving a prison term on a conviction he charged was politically inspired.

Cambodia's government said it would block his return. Sam Rainsy missed his self-declared deadline of returning home on Nov. 9, Cambodia's Independence Day, and his further plans are not clear.

On Nov. 10, a Cambodian court lifted some restrictions on the detained Kem Sokha, essentially freeing him from house arrest. Kem Sokha is still barred from engaging in political activity. He is not allowed to travel outside Cambodia, and he must comply and cooperate with the court or the authorities.

Although Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy are in the same party, there is a rivalry between the two. Some of Kem Sokha's supporters believe that Sam Rainsy failed to show leadership by breaking repeated vows to return to Cambodia while Kem Sokha stayed to challenge Hun Sen. Hun Sen, one of the regions most wily leaders, has a history of using divide-and-rule tactics against his opponents.