Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha called Wednesday for treason charges against him to be dropped as his trial resumed after two years of delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The case against the 68-year-old has been widely condemned as politically motivated and has dragged on for years.
He stands accused of conspiring with foreign entities to overthrow the government of strongman ruler Hun Sen, according to court documents – charges he vehemently denies.
As he left home on Wednesday, he urged the court to throw out the case.
“I have been waiting for so long for the court to proceed again so that these affairs can be finished,” he told reporters. Today, I hope the court will decide to drop the charges against me so that we can move forward to national reconciliation,” he said.
He added that he hoped he would be able to contest the national election in 2023.
Sokha’s trial began in January 2020, more than two years after his arrest, but hearings were postponed in March that year following coronavirus restrictions.
If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in jail.
Sokha co-founded the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, once considered the main challenger to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Hun Sen – who has ruled the country with an iron fist for 37 years.
Critics say Hun Sen has wound back democratic freedoms and used the courts to stifle opponents.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch (HRW), said the “bogus, politically motivated charges” against Sokha should never have been brought to court.
“This whole charade has been about preventing anyone from using the ballot box to meaningfully contest Hun Sen’s leadership,” Robertson said in a statement.
Sokha was arrested in 2017 and his party dissolved ahead of widely criticized elections the following year – leaving the CPP to canter to victory virtually unopposed.
The opposition leader was first detained in a remote prison and then placed under house arrest before his bail conditions were relaxed in November 2019.
More than two dozen activists jailed over charges against Hun Sen’s government were released late last year after court reduced their sentences or granted them bail.
HRW said at least 60 political prisoners remained in custody as their mass trial resumed in December.