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CNRP’s Sovannara on trial

Meach Sovannara at the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh
Meach Sovannara at the Supreme Court in Phnom Penh earlier this year. Sovannara will go on trial today after being arrested following a violent protest in July last year. Heng Chivoan

CNRP’s Sovannara on trial

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court today is scheduled to hear the trial of opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party activist Meach Sovannara, who was charged with leading a violent “insurrection” after an opposition demonstration turned violent last July.

Observers have long asserted that Sovannara’s case was being used by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to exert pressure on the opposition during the long negotiations over new laws governing elections.

Last week, the activist was released on bail just hours after the formation of the new National Election Committee – a key part of the negotiations – leading some to express optimism yesterday that today’s case may be thrown out.

While Choung Choungy, Sovannara's lawyer, declined to speculate on the trial’s potential outcome yesterday, Sovannara himself said that he expected to be acquitted, due in part to improved relations between CNRP leader Sam Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen.

“I hope that the court will deliver justice [for me], because we have done nothing wrong and [this case] was politically motivated,” he said. “The political crisis and deadlock have already ended, so I hope the court will provide justice.”

Sovannara has been accused of inciting a brawl on July 15 of last year that resulted in 39 security personnel and at least six protesters being injured when opposition demonstrators attacked a group of notoriously violent Daun Penh district security guards.

He and a group of other activists were released on bail last Monday on the heels of the NEC announcement. He was previously denied bail on five separate occasions.

Independent analysts yesterday were split on Sovannara’s prospects, noting that the formation of the new NEC had further strengthened Hun Sen and Rainsy’s relationship, while also noting that the relationship between Rainsy and Hun Sen isn’t the only one at play.

“The arrest [of Sovannara] was due to the fact that the parties were in disagreement. The hope is that Mr Sovannara will be acquitted,” said political analyst Chea Vannath, adding that when “the courts are mixed up with politics, then they are not independent”.

Analyst Sok Touch, however, said he believed that the outcome of the case may hinge on the still-fractious political relationship between Hun Sen and CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha instead.

Former political rivals Rainsy and Hun Sen have increasingly warmed to each other in recent months – they rang in the Khmer New Year together for the first time last week at the Angkor Archaeological Park – due to a “culture of dialogue”, which Touch said was born of political necessity.

However, Hun Sen has continued to direct harsher rhetoric at Sokha, even going so far as to call for his prosecution over comments made in the US regarding regime change.

“If His Excellency Kem Sokha remains controversial, Mr Meach Sovannara will still be at the whim of the court, [but] if the political heat between His Excellency Kem Sokha and Samdech Hun Sen dies down, the case will be ended,” Sok said. “The [CPP’s] strategy is to first fight before they negotiate to demonstrate their capabilities.”

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