Whisked into the Appeal Court under the cover of darkness, former CNRP President Kem Sokha on Thursday made his first trip from a Tbong Khmum prison to the capital to plead his case for bail, only to be swiftly taken back to the border province after the request was denied.
The opposition leader has languished in prison since his surprise midnight arrest in September after a 2013 video re-emerged in which he claimed to have received foreign assistance to plan his political career. The remarks were used as justification for a charge of “treason”.
Following his arrest, the Supreme Court, due to a suit filed by the Interior Ministry, dissolved Sokha’s Cambodia National Rescue Party in November and banned 118 of its senior members from the political arena. Many have since fled the country fearing arrest or intimidation.
Sokha has not been seen publicly since his arrest. Prosecutors and the investigating judge chose to question him in prison rather than bring him to court in Phnom Penh, citing security concerns.
The former CNRP leader was taken to court a little before 6am, with roads leading to the Appeal Court cordoned off by security personnel, preventing access to the media and public.
A little after 11am, Choung Choungy, Sokha’s lawyer, left the courtroom and informed reporters that the court had ruled against Sokha’s plea for bail, maintaining that it was for his own safety.
“The Appeal Court decided to not release Kem Sokha and to keep him in prison. The reason is to protect his security,” Choungy said, questioning this rationale. “He did not commit the crime and has the support of millions of people, so there is no enemy for him.”
Sokha’s daughter, Kem Monovithya, also questioned the security threat rationale, but said the verdict from “Hun Sen’s court” was not surprising.
“[The] claim that this government cannot protect the security of the opposition leader outside of prison is a direct threat to his security by the same people that imprison him.”
Meng Sopheary, also part of Sokha’s legal team, said the team’s plea was based on three points.
“First, it is his health. Second, if he is still in prison, there will be no way to find a solution to the political situation. And third, he did not commit the crime,” she said outside the court.
Earlier in the day, Sothearos Boulevard was barricaded near the Supreme Court, and European Union and United Nations observers were prevented from entering the premises – an incident Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights Chair Charles Santiago took umbrage with.
“While we welcome the fact that he was, for the first time, brought to court, preventing human rights monitors, the media and even representatives of the UN to attend the hearing demonstrates a clear attempt by the government to circumvent basic fair trial standards,” he said.
Human rights observers, journalists and a few party supporters stood outside the Appeal Court on Sisowath Quay, hoping for a glimpse of Sokha, to no avail. His 92-year-old mother, Sao Nget, broke down outside court pleading with police to let her in to meet her son.
“I want to meet my son. I want to go inside the court to meet my son,” she said.
She was later allowed to accompany Sokha’s wife, Te Chanmono, inside the court.
But for Khon Sokhom, a former CNRP deputy commune chief from Russey Keo commune, Sokha’s innocence was illustrated in the court’s reluctance to convict him so far.
“If he is wrong, the court would have tried him long ago. They won’t just question him again and again to extend the time,” he said.