The Phnom Penh Municipal Court today ruled that Kem Sokha, the deputy leader of the opposition, was guilty of refusing to appear for questioning in a prostitution case against him, and sentenced him to five months in prison and a fine of 800,000 riel ($200).
“This verdict can be regarded as having been announced in front of the accused,” said Judge Keo Mony, saying that Sokha was in breach of Article 538 of the Penal Code.
Mony added that Sokha was entitled to file an appeal, which he is expected to do. Under the law, Sokha has one month to file his appeal.
Sokha, who has been holed up at the headquarters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) since May 26, was not in court to hear the verdict, nor were any of his five lawyers.
Prior to the verdict, Sokha told an estimated 300 supporters at party headquarters earlier today that the legal proceedings against him were “designed to end my political career” in an effort to return to “a dictatorial regime”.
“The use of the court system is to attack me and prevent me from participating in the upcoming elections, and that will make the election unfair and unacceptable,” he said.
The recent slew of cases against opposition figures – including Sokha and party leader Sam Rainsy – is widely viewed as being politically motivated.
Today’s verdict stems from a separate case in which Sokha stands accused of prostitution charges in relation to his alleged affair with hairdresser Khom Chandaraty, aka Srey Mom. Despite being summonsed twice in May, Sokha refused to appear in court to answer questions about the prostitution allegations.
During today’s hearing, three policemen – one from the anti-terrorism division – testified that they had delivered summonses to Sokha’s house on multiple occasions, but that the defendant had not been at home to receive them and, they added, nobody at his house would accept the summonses.
Prosecutor Sieng Sok said Sokha had repeatedly ignored the court summonses without good reason.
“He had the intention not to show up [for questioning],” he told the court. “He did not explain what prevented him from coming to court.”
However a draft White Paper issued by the CNRP today specifically refuted that claim, stating that Sokha “through his defence lawyers, notified the court with written proper justifications as he could not appear before the court,” the White Paper stated. “Hence, based on [Article 538], Mr Kem Sokha didn’t commit a flagrante delicto offence.”
Also during the hearing, Judge Mony noted that the Appeal Court had rejected yesterday’s request by Sokha’s lawyers to replace Mony on the grounds that the judge was biased against the opposition.
“The [Appeal Court] decision cannot be protested,” Mony said.
Sokha’s lawyers had yesterday called on the Appeal Court to throw out the “illegal” case on the grounds that their client, as a sitting MP, had immunity from prosecution. The court echoed the government line that Sokha’s failure to appear for questioning was a case of in flagrante delicto, and that this warranted the removal of his immunity.
Security was tight for the verdict, with at least nine roadblocks set up on major access roads into Phnom Penh, and with dozens of security forces outside the court. One CNRP supporter, Um Dara, was arrested outside the court after scuffles broke out between opposition supporters and security forces.