Opposition leader Kem Sokha was yesterday charged with treason by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court after being questioned by a deputy prosecutor at Trapaing Phlong prison in Thbong Khmum province.
Mr Sokha’s arrest and detention was widely condemned by the international community, including the EU, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, America and Australia, but China offered its support to the government on the issue.
Court spokesman Ly Sophana said deputy prosecutor Kuoch Kimlong evaluated evidence in the case and questioned Mr Sokha before deciding to charge him with conspiring with a foreign power.
He added that Mr Kimlong had already sent the case to the investigating judge.
Article 443 of the criminal code defines conspiracy with a foreign power as having a secret agreement with a foreign state or its agents with a view to fomenting hostilities or aggression against the Kingdom of Cambodia.
The offence is punishable by 15 to 30 years in jail.
The court released a statement defending the charge, claiming it was legal and followed procedures.
The case against Mr Sokha was based on video footage published by the Australia-based news outlet CBN and other evidence collected by police, the court said.
The statement added that conspiracy with a foreign power was treason as stated in Article 443 of the criminal code, while Mr Sokha’s acts were a “flagrant” crime.
Kem Monovithya, Mr Sokha’s daughter and deputy director-general of public affairs for the CNRP, posted a message from her father in prison on Twitter, saying, “I may lose freedom, but may freedom never die in Cambodia”.
UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said there was international concern over the arrest of Mr Sokha.
“I am seriously concerned at the arrest of Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha, which appears to have been carried out with no respect for due process guarantees, including respect for his parliamentary immunity,” he said.
Mr Sokha’s lawyer Som Sokong said he and the CNRP could not accept the charges against the party leader.
He added that at the time of the alleged offence, Mr Sokha had simply travelled abroad to join training courses held by international organisations, to gain experience and knowledge to better do his job.
He said CNRP lawyers would meet as soon as possible to discuss the case, while he would call on the court to drop the charges against his client.
The court also yesterday sent a report on Mr Sokha’s parliamentary immunity to National Assembly President Heng Samrin.
Assembly spokesman Leng Penglong said a permanent committee meeting would be held to discuss the matter this week.
He said the National Assembly could stop court procedures against Mr Sokha, but only if three quarters of members voted to say so.
Yang Peou, political analyst and secretary-general of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said that if the video footage of Mr Sokha was real, then it showed he allowed a foreign country to interfere in Cambodian affairs.
“He is a politician and it could be said that his comments were politically motivated, but we have to check what the law says on the matter as well,” Mr Peou said, adding that politicians must be legally accountable for what they do.
The government has the right to take action if they find Mr Sokha’s actions could harm stability and peace, he added.
Academic Chheang Vannarith said sovereignty must be at the core of Cambodia’s foreign policy and interactions with international actors.
He added that the United States interfered in Cambodian politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, which led to three decades of civil war.
“The current ruling elites view foreign intervention as a core threat to national sovereignty,” Mr Vannarith said.
“The Cambodian government has taken tough measures to ensure that peace and stability remain under control, in a traditional sense. Peace and security sometimes are above human rights and liberal democracy.”