Kem Sokha’s lawyers told to seek prosecutors’ permission before seeing him

Lawyers for opposition leader Kem Sokha, who was sentenced to 27 years in prison for treason earlier this month, have been told to seek permission from prosecutors before they can meet with him, complicating efforts to mount an appeal.

Kem Sokha’s lawyers attempted to see him on Tuesday at his Phnom Penh residence but were blocked by plain-clothed guards.

The move is another example of hurdles thrown up in front of opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodia’s leader since 1985, ahead of July elections. In multiple cases, courts have convicted and sentenced opposition leaders, effectively neutering any opposition to Hun Sen’s power structure.

Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin wrote on Facebook on Wednesday that the lawyers should have sought permission from court prosecutors before seeing Kem Sokha, who is under house arrest and has 30 days from his March 3 conviction to file an appeal.

The actions violate a client’s right to see a lawyer, his lawyers wrote in a statement on Tuesday. 

“Co-defense lawyers can’t do what was requested, which is contracted by law and by professional code of conduct,” they wrote. “From today’s date, co-defense lawyers can’t perform their duties and responsibilities before Kem Sokha and his case.

“Kem Sokha’s right to get a lawyer is seriously violated unless there is positive reform in a timely manner,” they wrote.

A statement from the Phnom Penh Municipal Court said it had not yet received a request from Kem Sokha’s lawyers. The statement referenced the judge’s verdict that said any visits must be granted by the prosecutors.

Even when lawyers want to see their clients inside the prisons, they need to seek permission from prison officials, Chin Malin said on Facebook.

“It is not wrong to seek permission from the prosecutors because it has been noted in the court’s verdict,” he wrote. “Only if the prosecutors deny permission to the lawyers would it be a violation of the right to a lawyer.”

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In this Jan. 19, 2022 photo, former Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha, second from left, enters the Phnom Penh Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. (Heng Sinith/AP)

Another effort to silence

But lawyers have the right to see their clients inside prisons or wherever they want, according to Am Sam Ath of the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, or Licadho

“If the lawyers need permission every time for their visits, it will affect their client’s case,” he said. 

Authorities’ actions this week have violated the law as well as Kem Sokha’s rights – the court’s conditions in this case can’t supersede the law, he said. 

Requiring lawyers to seek permission for a meeting is a politically motivated act, political analyst Kim Sok said. He added that Kem Sokha’s case won’t be seen as legally proper if he isn’t allowed to see his lawyers. 

The charges against Kem Sokha relate partly to a video recorded in 2013 in which he discussed a strategy to win power with the help of U.S. experts. He has denied the treason charges since they were first filed in 2017.

The March 3 conviction and verdict was widely condemned, with Amnesty International Deputy Regional Director Ming Yu Hah saying it was just the latest attempt to silence Kem Sokha.

Last month, Cambodia’s Supreme Court upheld the conviction of another top opposition figure, Son Chhay, in a defamation case brought by election officials and the ruling party. He’s been ordered to pay more than U.S.$1 million to the Cambodian People’s Party and the National Election Commission. 

In January, Candlelight Party Vice President Thach Setha was arrested on charges of writing false checks – charges that opposition activists said were politically motivated. 

Also in January, Hun Sen demanded that a senior adviser to the Candlelight Party return his Phnom Penh home, worth about U.S.$10 million, to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Kong Korm had previously been a former deputy foreign minister. He has since resigned from his position in the party.

Radio Free Asia couldn’t reach Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak for comment on Wednesday. 

Translated by Samean Yun. Edited by Matt Reed and Malcolm Foster.