UN special Rapporteur Rhona Smith’s request to meet with jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha in a Tbong Khmum prison was rejected by an investigating judge who cited “important tasks” that needed to be completed before outsiders were allowed such access.
The rejection, which was issued on Wednesday, came days before Sokha’s bail hearing at the Supreme Court today, with a court official saying that the former Cambodia National Rescue Party president will not appear for the court.
The special rapporteur for human rights is on a bi-annual visit to the Kingdom and requested to meet Sokha, with a permission letter sent by the local UN human rights office. But Investigating Judge Ky Rithy rejected the reques saying only Sokha’s legal team and family were allowed to meet him.
“For other persons, permission to meet [him] can be allowed only after the judge had completed some important tasks,” the letter reads, referring to evidence collection and ongoing investigation into the case.
In a short response, Smith rebuffed the rejection. “I am disappointed that my request to meet with Kem Sokha was rejected by the investigating judge. I reiterate that the authorities should not deny me access to any detainees,” she said in an email.
Smith’s visit coincides with the harshest crackdown in Cambodia in recent memory, affecting the opposition, civil society and media outlets, with Sokha jailed on “treason” charges and his CNRP forcibly dissolved.
Pheng Heng, Sokha’s lawyer, said it was critical for Smith to meet Sokha to accurately assess the Kingdom’s human rights situation.
“If she only has information from one side, or has not met all the relevant parties, I believe that her report will be incomplete,” she said.
After appearing before the Appeal Court last month, where his bail application was rejected, Sokha will not make the trip from Tbong Khmum to Phnom Penh for today’s hearing, according to court Prosecutor Ouk Kimsith.
“Kem Sokha will not be brought to this hearing because the Supreme Court only decides on the legalities of the case, so the presence of the accused is not important,” he said.
Meng Sopheary, another member of Sokha’s legal team, said no matter the legal procedures, it was always preferable to have the defendant present in court. “The court should invite him to take part. If he declines, it is his right,” she said.