Cambodia: Conviction of former opposition leader a “judicial charade”

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Paris, 3 March 2023: FIDH condemns today’s conviction and prison sentence of former opposition leader Kem Sokha, and urges the Cambodian government to put an immediate end to all acts of harassment against its political opponents and critics ahead of the upcoming general election, which is scheduled for 23 July 2023.

The Phnom Penh Municipal Court found Kem Sokha guilty of treason under Articles 439 and 443 of the Criminal Code (“conspiracy with [a] foreign power”) and sentenced him to 27 years in prison. The court also ordered the suspension of his civil and political rights, including the right to vote and to stand in elections. Kem Sokha was placed under house arrest with judicial supervision until the conviction is final.

Kem Sokha is the former President of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The CNRP was arbitrarily dissolved by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in November 2017, amid a relentless campaign of harassment, prosecutions, and detentions of its members and supporters, in the lead-up to the July 2018 general election.

“The trial’s extraordinary length, flawed proceedings, and foregone conclusion show that Kem Sokha’s prosecution was nothing but a political charade aimed at keeping him out of politics. The Cambodian government must immediately stop the persecution of its political opponents through the use of subservient courts and repressive laws,” said FIDH Secretary-General Adilur Rahman Khan.

The politically motivated prosecution of Kem Sokha stemmed from a speech promoting democracy and a change in leadership in Cambodia, which the former opposition leader delivered in Australia in 2013. The video of this speech was subsequently posted online.

Kem Sokha’s trial lasted nearly three years, from 15 January 2020 to 21 December 2022, during which 66 hearings were held. The integrity of the proceedings was marred by inefficiency, questionable delays, including a 21-month-long halt attributed to the spread of COVID-19, and a disproportionate amount of the harassment levied towards Kem Sokha’s defense team, in particular a female lawyer.

The proceedings were characterized by numerous violations of Kem Sokha’s right to a fair trial. This right is guaranteed under the Cambodian Constitution and Criminal Code, and Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and political Rights (ICCPR), to which Cambodia is a state party.

The proceedings unquestionably violated Kem Sokha’s right to a trial without delay, as his trial did not commence until two-and-a-half years after his arrest and a judgement was not rendered until more than five years after his arrest. The defense’s numerous requests to expedite proceedings and objections to delays were ignored by the court. On more than one occasion, a deputy prosecutor responded to such objections by stating that the trial could be accelerated if the defendant just confessed to the crime of which he had been accused.

In addition, the prosecution and lawyers for the government (which joined as a civil party) frequently shifted the burden of proof to the defendant. In one notable instance, a lawyer for the government ranted against the presumption of innocence. Lastly, several defense witnesses were badgered and intimidated with the threat of perjury charges.

Concerns regarding the legality of Kem Sokha’s arrest in 2017 were raised by the defense, which argued that there was no arrest warrant that provided the basis for his arrest during a night raid on his home [See below, Background].


Kem Sokha was arrested by police shortly after midnight on 3 September 2017 at his home in Phnom Penh, in connection with an alleged plot to overthrow the government. On 5 September 2017, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court charged him with treason. Kem Sokha was detained in Trapaing Thlong Prison (Correctional Center 3 Prison) in Tboung Khmum Province. During his detention, he was denied bail five times.

In April 2018, the United Nations (UN) Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (WGAD) declared that Kem Sokha’s detention was “arbitrary,” because it resulted from the exercise of his right to freedom of opinion and expression and the right to take part in the conduct of public affairs. These right are guaranteed by Articles 19 and 25 of the ICCPR.

On the morning of 10 September 2018, a few days after marking one year in pre-trial detention, Kem Sokha was eventually released from prison on bail. The Phnom Penh Municipal Court subjected the release of Kem Sokha to several house arrest-like conditions, including: a prohibition to travel abroad; an obligation to remain confined within a four-block radius around his Phnom Penh home; a ban on meeting any former officials of the now dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) or individuals, especially foreigners, involved in his treason case.

On 10 November 2019, Kem Sokha was granted conditional release from house arrest, but remained banned from travelling abroad and forbidden to conduct political activities.

Since November 2020, 158 former CNRP members have been charged in mass criminal trials, and 79 former CNRP supporters—including its former leadership—have been convicted on felony and misdemeanor charges, with many tried and convicted in absentia.

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