Cambodia court due to give verdict in opposition leader treason trial

Kem Sokha, former leader of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), greets the media at his home before going to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court for the verdict in his trial in Phnom Penh on March 3, 2023. Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP

Phnom Penh, Cambodia -- A Cambodian court is expected to give a verdict on Friday in the treason trial of top opposition leader Kem Sokha, in a case critics say is designed to bar him from politics as the country prepares for a July election.

Arrested in 2017 in a midnight swoop involving hundreds of security forces, Kem Sokha is accused of hatching a "secret plan" in collusion with foreign entities to topple the government of longtime ruler Hun Sen.

The 69-year-old joint founder of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has long been a foe of Hun Sen -- one of the world's longest-serving leaders who critics say uses the courts to stifle opponents.

Kem Sokha -- who spent about a year in pre-trial prison and then lived under house arrest until November 2019 when his bail conditions were relaxed -- has repeatedly denied the charges against him.

He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted by the court in Phnom Penh.

His daughter Kem Monovithya said her father was keen to return to politics ahead of July's national poll.

"I hope he will be cleared to join the upcoming national election," she told AFP.

"He is resilient and an optimist. He's very eager to resume his political life to continue to contribute to the building of democracy and prosperity in Cambodia."

Critics say Hun Sen -- Asia's longest-serving leader -- has wound back democratic freedoms and used the courts to stifle opponents, jailing scores of opposition activists and human rights defenders.

Kem Sokha's lawyer Chan Chen said his client had been denied freedom and basic rights for five and a half years on "groundless charges".

- One-party state -

Two months after Kem Sokha's arrest, 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 and Hun Sen to win all 125 parliamentary seats in 2018, turning the country into a one-party state.

Scores of opposition figures were convicted of treason last year, some in absentia -- the latest squeeze on opponents ahead of elections.

Last month, Hun Sen ordered the shutdown of one of the country's few remaining local independent media outlets after taking issue with a news report about his son.

Political analyst Bunna Vann said a conviction and jail term would not only silence Kem Sokha but also the opposition voice in Cambodia.

It would strengthen "single-party dominance," he said.

Exiled opposition figure Sam Rainsy -- who has lived in France since 2015 to avoid jail on a number of convictions he says are politically motivated -- told AFP the trial was based on "fabricated charges."

He called on the court to give "justice to a man who has become a symbol for Cambodian aspirations for freedom."

© Agence France-Presse

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