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Defense Boycotts Cambodian Opposition Chief's Trial Over Introduction of New Evidence

2020-02-13 -- The entire legal team representing Cambodia's opposition leader Kem Sokha stormed out of his treason trial on Thursday, saying they were denied the right to speak on his behalf during the proceedings after being presented with volumes of new evidence by prosecutors only a day earlier.

Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha's lawyer Ang Odom told RFA's Khmer Service that Phnom Penh Municipal Court Presiding Judge Koy Sao did not provide equal opportunities for his team to defend his client during Thursday's hearings, as the trial concluded its fourth week.

"The court was trying to shut us up," he said.

"The prosecutors and the plaintiffs were allowed to speak, but when the judge refused to let us talk, we had no choice but to boycott the trial."

Kem Sokha faces charges of "conspiracy with foreign powers," including the U.S., to overthrow Prime Minister Hun Sen's government, in a case that could see him jailed for up to 30 years if convicted.

Prosecutors have cited as evidence of Kem Sokha's "treason" a video that was recorded in 2013 and shows him discussing a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts–though the U.S. Embassy had rejected any suggestion that Washington was interfering in Cambodian politics at the time of his arrest.

According to Kem Sokha's legal team, around 100 pages of new evidence was presented by prosecutors on Wednesday that defense lawyers had never received copies of or been notified about, related to an agreement between the CNRP leader and acting party president Sam Rainsy to merge their respective Human Rights Party and Sam Rainsy Party in 2012 to form the CNRP.

When the defense tried to object to the unexpected introduction of documents, Judge Koy Sao said that the evidence "already existed" and suggested that the lawyers "shouldn't make a big deal about it because they are publicly available."

The four defense lawyers then stood up and walked out of the courtroom to boycott the proceedings, which the judge said would be adjourned until Feb. 26 so that Kem Sokha's legal team can obtain copies of the newly submitted evidence and review it.

Speaking to RFA on Thursday, Soeung Sen Karona, a spokesman for the Cambodian human rights group Adhoc, said that Judge Koy Sao had acted unfairly towards the defense team and should do a better job of resolving disputes during the trial.

"The judge should have given chances to Kem Sokha's lawyers," he said.

"This was what led to the tension and ultimately to Kem Sokha's lawyers walking out."

Government lawyer Ky Tech did not make a statement to the media after the conclusion of Thursday's hearing.

'Bogus' charges

Kem Sokha's trial, which convenes on Wednesdays and Thursdays each week, has been dogged by allegations of political motivation and a lack of judicial independence, while rights groups and media watchdogs have been critical of restricted access to the proceedings for NGOs and journalists.

On the eve of the first day of the case, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) called Kem Sokha "the victim of a staged trial on completely bogus treason charges," while London-based Amnesty International suggested Kem Sokha's "non-existent crime was politically manufactured to further the suppression of the opposition party."

Two months after Kem Sokha's arrest in September 2017, Cambodia's Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP for its role in the alleged plot and banned 118 of its officials from political activities.

The move to dissolve the CNRP was part of a wider crackdown by Hun Sen on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for his CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country's July 2018 general election.

In the aftermath of the election, western governments have shunned Cambodia, including that of the European Union, which has linked the charges against Kem Sokha and the country's dismal human rights record to its decision on Wednesday to suspend tariff-free access for around one-fifth of its exports to the bloc under the "Everything But Arms" (EBA) scheme for developing nations.

The partial suspension would affect around U.S. $1.1 billion of the country's exports to the EU by reinstating tariffs on garments and footwear, as well as travel goods and sugar, beginning Aug. 12, unless it is blocked by the bloc's governments or its parliament, according to the European Commission.

On Nov. 12, the EU warned in a preliminary report that Cambodia had not taken enough measures to prevent a withdrawal of its EBA status, noting the country's further deterioration of civil, political, labor, social, and cultural rights since the launch of a review process in February last year.

EU imports from Cambodia totaled 5.3 billion euros (U.S. $5.8 billion) om 2018, nearly all of which entered the EU duty-free, taking advantage of EBA preferences.

Clothing and textiles–a crucial industry in Cambodia that employs around one million people–account for around 75 percent of EU imports from the Southeast Asian nation.

Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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