Deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha inched a step closer to prison on Friday as the Court of Appeal upheld a September verdict sentencing him to five months in prison for failing to appear for questioning in a “prostitution” case.
“I’m very disappointed with the decision to uphold the decision against my client,” said Hem So*cheat, one of Mr. Sokha’s five defense attorneys. “This case has all the signs of being politically motivated.”
Mr. Sokha, who has been housebound at the CNRP’s Phnom Penh headquarters since May to avoid arrest, did not attend the trial, but Mr. Socheat said his client would appeal to the Supreme Court later this month. Authorities have said they will not arrest Mr. Sokha until the high court reaches a verdict on the case.
Though Mr. Sokha was initially under investigation by the Anti-Corruption Unit for bribery related to an alleged affair with a 25-year-old woman, that case was quickly eclipsed by a second filed after the acting CNRP president did not turn up for questioning on May 17 and 26.
The defense has argued the crime was not “flagrante delicto,” a legal term meaning caught in the act that would allow for the arrest of a lawmaker, and therefore Mr. Sokha should be protected from prosecution due to his parliamentary immunity, which can only be stripped by a two-thirds vote in the National Assembly.
“If the prosecutor concluded that it was a flagrante delicto, why did he continue to summon my client to appear on the 26th of May?” Mr. Socheat asked, referring to the second summons.
Presiding Judge Seng Sivutha was not swayed.
“Kem Sokha is a public figure so he should be an example to people and other witnesses to go to court,” Judge Sivutha told the court.
Mr. Sokha’s lawyers plan to wait until the end of the legally mandated 30-day period to appeal to the Supreme Court, Mr. Socheat said.
“Since they have the intention to move this case against my client as fast as possible, we will not submit the appeal soon since it seems likely to push my client toward pris*on,” he said.
“We have noticed that the upper courts—such as the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court—always uphold the verdict laid down by the lower court.”
CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, who decided to remain abroad after a warrant for his arrest was issued in November last year, has been barred from returning to Cambodia, leaving open the possibility that the party would be without a free leader in the country.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, a prominent member of the opposition, however, said he was “not worried” about the potential leadership vacuum.
“During the time of the Sam Rainsy Party, Sam Rainsy could be gone and the party would go on,” he said. “Now, as long as we have a political agenda and political platform, we can just go on without a president and vice president.”
Prince Thomico said Mr. So*kha’s fate was in the hands of the ruling party.
“It just depends on their strategy,” he said.
Ou Virak, director of the Future Forum public policy think tank, said Mr. Sokha’s voluntary house arrest amounted to a prison of its own.
“He’s not going out of the office anyway,” he said. “The only difference between the office and prison is his ability to meet people.”
Mr. Sokha’s arrest could “sterilize” the CNRP’s ability to advance a coherent platform and policies, according to Mr. Virak.
“Having said that…the party hasn’t done those things anyway,” he said.
But Mr. Virak said it was likely a moot point.
“I think the CPP will be smart enough not to arrest him,” he said, as the move could create a “new martyr” and bring about turmoil that would not be tolerated by the CPP’s powerful allies in the business world.
“Any of these rocky or unstable situations will have a huge impact on the investment climate,” he said. “Eventually it will trickle down to businesses.”
naren@cambodiadaily.com, paviour@cambodiadaily.com
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