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Cambodia to open treason trial of opposition leader Kem Sokha

PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodian opposition party leader Kem Sokha is set to go on trial on treason charges on Wednesday in a closely watched case as the European Union mulls suspending trade benefits over the Southeast Asian nation’s human rights record.

FILE PHOTO: File picture of Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha greeting media at his home in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on November 13, 2019. REUTERS/Samrang Pring/File Photo

It could take up to three months to deliver a verdict, defence lawyers said on Tuesday, meaning the case could still be ongoing by the time the European Union (EU) makes a final decision on its trade policy next month.

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 longtime leader 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.

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.

One of Kem Sokha’s attorneys, Chan Chen, said a court official had informed him that trial may take up to three months.

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 the 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.

“We hope that he will be acquitted if the court has any interest at all in starting to demonstrate its independence,” his daughter said.

Amnesty International called the charges “bogus”, saying authorities have not presented a shred of credible evidence to support them.

Ministry of Justice spokesperson Chin Malin declined to comment and Phnom Penh Municipal Court spokesman Y Rin couldn’t be reached for comment on Tuesday.

Reporting by Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan