Senior Cambodian officials said on Thursday that the US can monitor Kem Sokha’s trial as it wishes but would not be allowed to interfere in court procedures.
The point was made in response to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s comments on Wednesday at a press conference that Washington would closely watch Sokha’s trial.
Sokha, the former president of the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), is under court-supervised bail on a treason charge and is scheduled to stand trial on January 15.
He was arrested in September 2017 and charged under Article 443 of the Criminal Code with conspiracy with a foreign power. He faces a maximum of 30 years in prison if found guilty.
During the press conference, Pompeo also touched on the recent designation of Cambodian tycoon Oknha Try Pheap and General Kun Kim under the US’ Global Magnitsky Act, which placed sanctions on 68 individuals and entities in nine countries for “corruption and human rights abuses”.
The US Department of Treasury imposed sanctions on Pheap and Kim and his family on grounds that the two figures had directly or indirectly engaged in corruption, including the misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery.
On Sokha’s legal case, Pompeo said the US was a nation that not only believes in the inalienable rights of all people but was founded on protecting them. He said Washington had acted to support human rights champions around the world, including Sokha.
“It’s who we are. We are, for instance, watching the trial in Cambodia of opposition leader Kem Sokha. We’re keeping an eye on all of the activity in the new government of Sri Lanka and much more,” he said.
The treason charge against Sokha stemmed from a video clip in which he says he received advice from the US in his political activities, and that he followed the model of Yugoslavia and Serbia in taking over the government.
Responding to Pompeo, Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation spokesperson Koy Kuong said his comments would not hold sway as Sokha’s legal case would proceed in line with the Kingdom’s laws.
“Cambodia will continue the trial of Kem Sokha as per the court’s decision. So I don’t think [his remarks] will have any effect on court procedure. No impact at all,” he said.
Ministry of Justice spokesperson Chin Malin echoed Kuong’s remarks, saying Cambodia would follow the law of the land.
“The US has the right to watch [the proceedings]. What’s important is that its actions do not represent interference in our sovereign state’s internal affairs. It cannot dictate us to do this and that or order us to drop the charge as they wish,” he said.
Kin Phea, the director of the Royal Academy of Cambodia’s International Relations Institute, said Pompeo publicly addressed Sokha’s case as it more or less involved the US.
He pointed out that Washington felt uneasy with Sokha’s claims that he had received its support for his political activities.
“The accusation against Sokha is the same as that against the US because the alleged foreign conspirator in his case is none other than the US.
“So the US would, of course, observe this case as it has also been implicated. The only difference is that it is not under the Cambodian court’s jurisdiction like Kem Sokha.
“I think Cambodia and the US need to make Sokha’s case clear and be certain how they want it to end. Only after this case has been resolved can they move forward. Now Sokha is like a thorn in the side of US-Cambodia relations,” he said.
To improve bilateral relations, Phea urged US officials to watch their attitude towards Cambodia.
“Bilateral ties can be strong, durable and positive only when the two countries refrain from interfering in each other’s internal affairs.
“If the US keeps poking its nose into [Cambodia’s] affairs, I believe it will be hard for the two to restore trust and confidence in each other,” he said.
US Embassy in Phnom Penh spokespersons did not respond to The Post’s request for comment on Thursday.