In the morning of Friday, March 3, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court delivered the much-anticipated verdict on Kem Sokha, the last leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), dissolved by the Supreme Court in November 2017. The news spread immediately around the media worldwide, all of them slamming the all too visible political motivation of the verdict. It certainly is detrimental for the image of Cambodia and its strongman Hun Sen who is prime minister since 1985 and obviously grooming as a successor his son Hun Manet, who is already the army chief.
The Phnom Penh Post reports on the same day that the court convicted Kem to 27 years in prison under articles 439 and 443 of the Criminal Code and barred him from politics and elections under article 450. The main reason for the indictment being the alleged attempt to overthrow the rightful Cambodian government by conspiracy with foreign states is covered by article 443, which reads as follows:
Article 443 Espionage. The acts of entering into secret agreement with a foreign state or with its agents in order to create hostilities or aggression against Cambodia is punishable by imprisonment from 15 (fifteen) years to 30 (thirty) years.”
Article 450 defines additional penalties like the reduction of civil rights, travel restrictions, house arrest and the ban of contacts with others than family members.
This unusual kind of lawsuit against Kem had started with his detention in 2017 and smoldered since then through several phases of imprisonment, release on bail, and house arrest. After the verdict was handed down by the court, Kem was not immediately sent to prison but confined to his home under court supervision.
With the former co-leader of the CNRP, Sam Rainsy, already in exile since 2016 to avoid prison terms for similarly politically motivated conspiracy against Cambodia, the opposition is now without its most popular figure heads. Kem Sokha is 69 years old, Sam Rainsy 74, and Cambodia has a young population with the younger ones probably not remembering too much of the days when the CNRP had hopes to win against Hun Sen’s well-oiled Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP) election machinery and its army backing.
For all who know Kem Sokha personally, the conviction is especially outrageous. A balanced and soft but outspoken man, he became popular as a politician who can listen to the grievances of the common people, who can speak their language, and who knows what is wrong in the country. As a former human rights lawyer, he founded the Human Rights Party which he later merged with the CNRP. He could have contributed much to the development of Cambodia and balance the authoritarian style of the ruling CPP, had he not been perceived by Prime Minister Hun Sen as a threat to his own dominance.