As the March 3 deadline passed on Sunday, Sam Rainsy lost his wager with Prime Minister Hun Sen on Kem Sokha’s legal situation. And analysts are predicting several scenarios 18 months after the president of the former Cambodia National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) arrest.
Sokha, who co-founded the Supreme Court-dissolved CNRP, was arrested on September 3, 2017, and charged with conspiring with a foreign power to oust the government.
His arrest came after a video was spread on social media where he said he received US help in his political career. It also led to the Supreme Court-dissolution of the CNRP in November 2017.
Sokha was released on bail in September last year, after more than a year in detention at Trapaing Phlong prison in Tbong Khmum province. He has since remained at his home under court supervision.
Under Article 208 of the criminal procedure, a person charged in a criminal case must not be held in pre-trial detention longer than six months, but investigative judges can delay the detention twice amounting to a total of 18 months.
“Kem Sokha’s case does not fall under the 18-month timeframe because the court granted him bail, under its supervision."
“Under this process, the investigative judge can put conditions to benefit the investigation, such as banning the bailed person from meeting certain people or outlining the area they must remain within."
“The period of court supervision is indefinite and is up to the investigative judge. He can complete the investigation and decide whether or not there is basis supporting the charge,” Ministry of Justice spokesperson Chin Malin said.
With no change in Sokha’s circumstances by Sunday, it meant Rainsy lost the bet he made with Hun Sen in November saying Sokha would be released of his charge between December 29 and March 3.
Rainsy said he would return to Cambodia to face outstanding criminal cases should he lose the wager, while the prime minister agreed to step down should he lose.
Analysts have predicted several scenarios for Sokha this year, including his charge being dropped, he is convicted, the 65-year-old remaining on bail or even his return to prison.
Kin Phea, the director-general of the International Relations Institute at the Royal Academy of Cambodia, said Sokha’s case was totally dependent on the court, and it was hard to see the charge being dropped any time soon.
“I am sure he will be sent to trial, and what the court’s ruling would be, we can’t predict. After the court makes its ruling, there could be a political compromise. But when it comes to politics we cannot predict [with certainty] because he could be released from the charge even tomorrow,” he said.
“I believe Kem Sokha will be pardoned at a reasonable time [for the benefit of] national reconciliation and unity. It is reasonable that all politicians can sit together for the [good of the] nation,” he said.
Social analyst Meas Nee said the charge brought against Sokha was too severe, saying he should instead be charged with incitement over the speech he made in the video clip. A charge of treason must have clear evidence to show he was working with foreigners, he said.
“If Kem Sokha committed treason, there must be an investigation into who was working with him – the government accused the US of being behind it. So there must be proof of that. The case has been under investigation for more than a year,” he said.
‘A way out’
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said it was very much unpredictable whether Sokha would be freed of his charge.
He said when the rule of law was weak and the rule of men prevailed in a country’s governance, anything could happen.
“It is highly unlikely Kem Sokha will be released any time soon,” he said.
But Ou Virak, president of the Future Forum think tank, said he believed that the government would find a solution to the political situation and a compromise could be made in the next few weeks.
“I think neither the EU nor Cambodia wants the withdrawal of the preferential EBA [Everything But Arms] agreement. I am sure politically the EU is under pressure at home to bring about a restoration of political and civil society space in Cambodia."
“Given that the Cambodian government is already in full control of the situation and there are no national elections in the near future, I think it would be more willing to find a way out,” he said.
‘Make an example’
He said he believed the chances of Sokha’s charge being dropped were slim, especially as it was such a high-profile case. The charge would remain, he said, but it was likely that most of the CNRP officials banned from politics would be allowed to return, he said.
Virek expected two possible scenarios, he said, including the lifting of Sokha’s bail conditions, allowing him to talk to anyone, including opposition politicians and foreign embassies. But the case remained without a trial date.
The second possibility, he said, was that the case could move forward soon. Sokha could be quickly convicted and sentenced.
The prime minister could then make a request to King Norodom Sihamoni for a royal pardon and Sokha could be released.
But he said the worst-case scenario was that Sokha would be found guilty, sent to prison and Cambodia’s access to EBA would be withdrawn.
“Under this scenario, the US will lead a charge for the isolation of Cambodia with economic and political sanctions, possibly completely damaging the garment industry with the placing of sanctions."
“The US and the West may decide they are losing Cambodia and therefore need to make an example of the Kingdom,” Virak said.