Jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha’s lawyers yesterday boycotted the questioning of their client on “treason” charges at Trapaing Phlong Prison to protest the judge’s decision not to question him at the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
Sokha was arrested at the beginning of September, and stands accused of “having a secret agreement with a foreign state . . . with a view to fomenting hostilities” against Cambodia. The widely decried charge was handed down after a video of a 2013 speech was recirculated by government mouthpiece Fresh News in which Sokha talks about receiving political advice from the United States.
His Cambodia National Rescue Party – the nation’s only viable opposition – was dissolved last month on similar grounds in a decision that has drawn near-universal condemnation. Sokha has been questioned twice so far.
Defence lawyer Pheng Heng yesterday said that the team of eight lawyers boycotted the questioning after the judge rejected their motion on Wednesday to have Sokha questioned in court.
“Our group of lawyers requested the interrogation to be held at the court because the interrogation at prison makes our client feel uncomfortable and restricts his lawyers’ rights . . . He is not a disabled prisoner who needs to be interrogated there,” he said.
Heng said it was equally unacceptable that even the lawyers’ documents were checked by guards, with some not permitted inside the prison.
“Even the book, law books, they looked at every page and they checked very strictly,” he said, adding that even confidential conversations between lawyers and Sokha were caught on surveillance cameras. “We requested their removal, but they said that they cannot remove them.”
What’s more, Heng said, Sokha shouldn’t have been detained at the remote Trapaing Phlong in the first place, as the case was under Phnom Penh Municipal Court’s jurisdiction, but their motions to move Sokha back to the capital had been rejected several times.
Sam Sokong, another defence lawyer, said that Sokha wouldn’t answer the judge’s questions without the presence of the lawyers. “If he does not answer the questions because there are no lawyers, the court cannot interrogate him. If the court does, it violates the rights of the accused,” he said.
Investigating Judge Ky Rithy could not be reached for comment yesterday, but court spokesperson Y Rin said that even if the defence boycotted the interrogation, the judge could still continue with the procedure.
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin explained that the decision not to send Sokha to Phnom Penh Municipal Court was to maintain “his safety”, and to avoid “pressure” during the interrogation process.
“Despite the noncooperation [of the lawyers], the procedures will proceed, and if he has the lawyers and does not use the right to protect himself, it does not halt the procedure,” he said, though he admitted that it could prolong the procedure.
Phin Yan, Trapaing Phlong Prison director, said that the questioning was initially scheduled to continue today, but it had been cancelled by the investigating judge yesterday.