A Cambodian court convened on Wednesday to begin the trial of opposition party leader Kem Sokha on charges of treason in a case that has drawn condemnation from rights groups as a move by longtime leader Hun Sen to crush political rivals.
Diplomats packed the Phnom Penh Municipal Court as the defendant arrived, and only a few journalists were allowed in to view the proceedings.
It could take up to three months to deliver a verdict, defense lawyers said on Tuesday, meaning the case could still be ongoing by the time the European Union (EU) makes a decision on its trade policy next month on whether to cut Cambodia’s preferential trade status over its human rights record.
Kem Sokha was arrested in 2017 and his opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was banned ahead of a 2018 election in which the party of Hun Sen won all the parliamentary seats.
He was freed from house arrest in November but a ban on his engaging in political activity was kept in place.
The treason charges stem from accusations that Kem Sokha was conspiring with the United States to overthrow Hun Sen. He denies the charges, saying they are politically motivated.
Rights groups have decried the case. Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said it was unlikely Kem Sokha would receive a fair trial.
“Kem Sokha will be the victim of a staged trial on completely bogus treason charges,” Robertson said.
“The government should cut their losses by dropping the charges against him, but clearly Prime Minister Hun Sen decided instead to extract the proverbial pound of flesh from Kem Sokha for daring to challenge him.”
Ministry of Justice spokesperson Chin Malin declined to comment on the trial when asked on Tuesday.
Many other opposition figures have fled into exile and have accused Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 35 years, of establishing a one-party state.
The EU, which accounts for nearly half of Cambodia’s exports, will decide in February whether or not to remove Cambodia from its Everything But Arms trade scheme over its crackdown on political expression.
The only evidence presented against Kem Sokha in public so far is a comment he made at a public meeting in which he said he was getting advice from unspecified Americans on election strategy ahead of a 2013 ballot.
Kem Sokha’s daughter Monovithya Kem called the trial against her father a “farce” as rights groups urged the case to be dismissed.