The trial of Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha is set to begin on January 25, but the Phnom Penh Municipal Court has denied journalists and human rights monitors access to the hearing, further denying Mr. Sokha his rights on a criminal trial that is called a fabrication by rights groups.
Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups have long called for dropping the politically motivated charges against Sokha, while on January 17, three United Nations special rapporteurs called the trial “tainted.”
“The bogus prosecution of Kem Sokha is made even worse by unjustifiably keeping the media and rights monitors out of the courtroom,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
“Cambodian authorities should drop the charges against Sokha instead of trying to keep his shabby and unlawful treatment out of public view,” added Robertson.
The court’s president said Sokha’s trial for alleged espionage is expected to take three months, with two hearings a week.
On January 10, the court issued a notice that only 30 seats were available for observers in the courtroom gallery and those who want to monitor the trial would need to register. When reporters and human rights observers went to register, they were informed that 23 out of the 30 seats were reserved for diplomats and they would be notified by January 13 if they would get an observer pass.
As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, no one seeking a pass ever heard from the court. On January 15, rights monitors and reporters appeared at the court but were told that the courtroom was full.
Observers in the courtroom told Human Rights Watch that there were many unoccupied seats in the court’s public gallery on January 15 and 16. Two journalists who managed to enter the courtroom on the morning of January 15 were not allowed back inside for the afternoon session.
Voice of America reported that about 200 police and other security forces were stationed at the court and streets leading to the court.
Cambodia’s Foreign Affairs Ministry asserted that access to the courtroom was “at the discretion of the court, taking into consideration the actual court space, order and the conduct of the trial. Most of the diplomatic corps are represented and there were no empty seats in the courtroom.”
In February, the European Union will determine whether Cambodia’s human rights record has improved sufficiently to avoid losing the tariff-free entry to the EU market for Cambodian goods under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade program. Kem Sokha’s case will be among the issues the EU review will be considering.
“The empty seats at Kem Sokha’s trial make a mockery of government claims that there is no room for journalists and human rights monitors in the courtroom,” Robertson said. “We expect that the European Union and other concerned governments will be watching the Sokha case closely and the truth about these sham proceedings will eventually come out.” (Source: HRW)