Prime Minister Hun Sen has said the treason trial of former opposition leader Kem Sokha could be delayed until next year and not held by August, which is when the European Union makes its final decision on partial removal of the Kingdom’s Everything-but-arms trade status.
Sokha is currently on trial over a charge of “conspiracy with foreign powers” and faces up to 30 years in prison if found guilty. However, his trial, which began in January and expected to be concluded in three months, was suspended in March due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Speaking during a closed-door Council of Ministers meeting at the Peace Palace on Friday, Mr Hun Sen said several issues were discussed at his recent meeting with Sokha during his mother-in-law’s funeral in Phnom Penh early this month.
“When we met at my mother-in-law’s wake recently, we did not discuss anything new. His case is dependent on the actions of the court,” he said. “I have made known to Mr Sokha that the EBA trade status and his fate are somewhat related.”
The European Commission in February announced it had recommended the partial removal of the EBA after it deemed Cambodia has not done enough to meet certain demands.
If the European Parliament and the European Council endorse the recommendation, the partial removal of the Kingdom’s Everything-but-arms trade status will take effect on August 12.
“The EU will be punishing him [Sokha] by revoking the EBA status from Cambodia,” Mr Hun Sen added. “The case may now stretch beyond August and possibly into 2021.”
“Nothing new was discussed as there is no new development and the court will carry out its trial in accordance with the law,” Mr Hun Sen noted.
Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin said yesterday the court is independent in making its judgment. He said he could not predict when Sokha’s case will end.
“Kem Sokha’s case is proceeding based on the legal procedure of the court, which is independent and no one can interfere or force the court to do anything,” he said. “It depends on the result of the investigation and the trial’s proceedings.”
“Currently, this case is in the trial stage and lawyers from both sides are struggling to defend their positions based on the law,” Mr Malin noted. “They are providing new evidence which could require more time to be presented.”
He said Sokha’s case could take a longer time due to challenges from Sokha’s and government lawyers.
“It is just legal procedure and finding justice. The court gives the chance to both parties to have equal rights and bring forward pieces of evidence,” Mr Malin added.
Pheng Heng, one of Sokha’s lawyers, has urged for the case to be sped up since the COVID-19 situation has improved, noting an indefinite delay would impact his client.
He said the case could go on if the court took precautions against the coronavirus to ensure the safety of the relevant parties.
Kin Phea, director-general of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said yesterday Sokha’s and the EBA cases are related as one of EU’s demands is to drop Sokha’s charge.
“The government may wait until August to see if the EU will partially remove the EBA. If they do as they said, like it or not, it would impact Sokha’s case,” he said. “He may face a prison sentence and be detained at a remote prison away from the city.”
“The government has said the Kem Sokha trial is under the Kingdom’s judicial jurisdiction as a sovereign state, but the EU has repeatedly said the case is politically motivated and warned about removing the EBA. This has made it hard for both sides to reach a deal,” Mr Phea added.
However, he believes Sokha’s case could be solved after a final court verdict, through a request from Mr Hun Sen for the King to pardon him.