The Appeal Court rejected a challenge from jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha against the extension of his pre-trial detention on Tuesday, as the notorious Daun Penh security guards returned to their heavy-handed tactics in scuffles with Sokha supporters outside.
The hearing was conducted within a heavy security cordon around the court, enforced by the district security guards and municipal police, leaving journalists and monitors unable to attend the hearing that decided if Sokha will remain in jail up to five more months.
The decision was seemingly predicted by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who at a graduation ceremony said the Appeal Court was unlikely to consider Sokha’s plea.
“I don’t believe the Appeal Court will release the chief traitor because it is a treason case, but I will respect the court’s decision,” he said Tuesday morning.
The former Cambodia National Rescue Party president has been imprisoned at a Tbong Khmum province facility since his September arrest on “treason” charges, and his previous bail requests have been rejected.
On Tuesday, Sokha’s lawyers contested a ruling handed down earlier this month to extend his pre-trial detention.
The treason case is currently with a lower court investigating judge and no trial date has been set. It rests largely on a 2013 video, recently re-circulated, in which Sokha tells supporters he received foreign advice in planning his political career.
The charges have been widely panned by the international community, as has the forced dissolution of Sokha’s Cambodia National Rescue Party – the nation’s only credible opposition – over allegations it was fomenting “revolution”.
Meng Sopheary, a lawyer for Sokha, said the Appeal Court should have considered that the Phnom Penh investigating judge had already had six months to gather evidence in the case and should not need an extension. “I, as any other citizen, can see this is a political case because there was no crime,” she said. “The extension of detention affects his rights because there is no evidence.”
While Sokha was expected to appear, having been served a summons, he was absent from Tuesday’s hearing.
Court spokesman Touch Tharith, who on Monday had said Sokha was expected to attend, would not explain the reason behind his absence.
“But his lawyers still participated to present his arguments in the court,” he said.
Nuth Savna, deputy chief of the Prisons Department, said it was ascertained by officials that Sokha did not have to be taken to court, claiming security issues. However, Sokha made the same trip to the capital for a bail hearing at the Appeal Court in February.
“Through discussions and legal considerations, it was decided it is not necessary to bring him. And what is important is that it is related to security concerns,” Savna said.
Earlier in the day, Phnom Penh police officials and security guards barricaded all roads leading to the Appeal Court, preventing journalists, CNRP supporters and rights groups from accessing the hearing.
As crowds started to gather near Wat Botum Park on Sothearos Boulevard, Daun Penh district security guards – who have gained a reputation for their frequent violent crackdowns on peaceful protesters – continually tried to push back CNRP supporters and officials, even preventing them from giving interviews to the media.
One of the supporters, Pen Chan, drew a message in support of Sokha on the street but was quickly pounced on by the security guards, with the guards’ head, Kim Vutha, slapping him in the face and ordering him to erase the message.
“You have to erase it. There are no politics allowed here,” a reporter overheard Vutha say.
Former CNRP lawmaker Ou Chanrith said the court should release Sokha if it had failed to find any evidence so far, at least temporarily. Sokha’s legal team have applied for bail on health grounds, citing a pinched blood vessel in his back.
“[It] has been more than six months, and by law if you don’t have any evidence to prove that he committed a crime then the court has to consider releasing him,” said Chanrith.
Meanwhile, Phnom Penh Municipal Police Chief Choun Sovann on Tuesday held a meeting with the capital’s district police officials, asking them to closely monitor any potential opposition activities ahead of this July’s national election.
“After we analyse [this information] we can predict the situation and can find out the weaknesses of the opposition and its intentions to oppose and cause chaos in society,” he said.
Additional Reporting by Ben Sokhean and Mech Dara