The Phnom Penh Municipal Court has summoned acting opposition leader Kem Sokha to appear in court for questioning on Thursday – the first day of the election campaign.
The questioning comes in response to a defamation suit filed by Chum Mey, a Tuol Sleng prison survivor and president of a Khmer Rouge victims association, who sued Sokha over his alleged claims that the notorious security centre was “staged” by the Vietnamese.
A spokesman for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) confirmed that they received the summons on Saturday but said that neither Sokha – who is currently in Australia – nor a CNRP representative would appear in court.
“This is a petty issue that we are not interested in. The national interest is more important than this. We are focusing on how to help to resolve people’s problems,” CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said, adding that Sokha has already denied the allegations.
Sokha could not be reached for comment yesterday but told reporters last week that he was not interested in the case and had yet to appoint a lawyer to defend him in court.
“I have not thought about this case. I think about the election first,” he said.
According to Mey’s lawyer, Kuoy Thunna, if Sokha refuses to appear in court, procedure will be invoked to force him to appear.
“Attending or not attending [court] is his right, but the court will enforce the law. As I understand, if the court issues a first citation, and then a second and he still does not appear, the court will issue a writ to bring him in,” he said.
Yeng Virak, executive director at the Community Legal Education Center, said, however, Sokha could ask the court to postpone the hearing until after the election if he promises to appear.
“In principle the accused should show up but . . . it’s obvious he cannot [attend] because he’s a politician and the campaign starts that day, and of course the court should understand this,” he said.
Court deputy prosecutor Meas Chanpisith, who issued the summons, could not be reached for comment yesterday.
If the case is allowed to proceed as planned, it would hurt and distract Sokha on the campaign trail, pointed out Koul Panha, executive director of election watchdog Comfrel.
“It affects the atmosphere and disturbs electoral affairs. This case should be taken to be debated. This case should not be taken to the court,” Panha said, adding that there was little doubt the case was politically motivated.
Although the suit should never have gone to court, Sokha could yet use the opportunity for political gain, political analyst Kem Ley said.
“He must go [to be questioned], he should go, because if he would like to focus on the election, this is [part] of the election campaign. He can use this tactic . . . to show people ‘I’m not wrong, I’m right’, and maybe the mass media . . . will go there,” he said.
“If I were a politician I would like to go to prison . . . it can help the political campaign . . . if Sam Rainsy or Kem Sokha go to court and get sent to prison it’s OK because the party will get popular,” he added.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak said yesterday that all authorities have been ordered to strengthen and enforce public security during the election campaign and report all incidents to the ministry.
He declined, however, to comment on the court’s decision to summon Kem Sokha on the first day of campaigning.