11 July 2024

Phnom Penh, Cambodia – A top Cambodian opposition leader on Tuesday appealed against his 27-year treason sentence for trying to topple former premier Hun Sen’s government, his lawyers said.

A court in March last year found Kem Sokha, a co-founder of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), guilty of conspiring with foreign entities to overthrow Hun Sen’s government.

He was sentenced to 27 years in prison and immediately placed under house arrest. The court also stripped Kem Sokha of his political rights and banned him from meeting foreigners or anyone who is not a family member.

Kem Sokha, 70, has repeatedly denied the charges against him since his arrest in 2017.

On Tuesday morning, he was taken in a convoy of police cars from his house to the appeal court, which is not open to journalists.

Judges are set to conduct nine hearings to hear arguments in Kem Sokha’s appeal, his lawyer Ang Udom told reporters after the first hearing was concluded.

“We oppose the verdict issued by the first court that has made a wrong decision,” he said, adding that Kem Sokha also asked judges to consider easing his detention restrictions so that his relatives could take care of him.

In a statement, Amnesty International urged the Cambodian authorities “to overturn the baseless treason conviction and sentence of Kem Sokha and end their ongoing crackdown against opposition groups”.

The next hearing is scheduled for February 8, Ang Udom said.

– Opposition crackdown –

Security was tight outside of the court with police set up roadblocks to keep dozens of Kem Sokha’s supporters away.

Rights groups say the charges against Kem Sokha were designed to bar him from politics ahead of last July’s elections, in which Hun Sen’s ruling party won a landslide victory with no meaningful opposition.

The United States characterised his sentence as a “miscarriage of justice” based on a “fabricated conspiracy”.

Hun Sen, who ruled Cambodia for more than 38 years, stepped down in August and handed power to his eldest son Hun Manet.

Two months after Kem Sokha’s arrest in 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP, once considered the sole viable opponent to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

That paved the way for the CPP to win all 125 parliamentary seats in 2018, turning the country into a de facto one-party state.

Former Khmer Rouge cadre Hun Sen ran the kingdom for nearly four decades from 1985, eliminating all opposition to his power, with rival parties banned, challengers forced to flee and freedom of expression stifled.

Scores of opposition figures were convicted of treason in the run-up to elections last year.

Amnesty said at least 23 members of opposition groups were currently detained by Cambodian authorities after being arbitrarily arrested on bogus charges.

by Agence France Presse