(New York) – The criminal trial of an opposition party leader is part of an increasingly violent Cambodian government campaign to prevent free and fair elections in 2018, Human Rights Watch said today. The scheduled September 9, 2016 trial of Kem Sokha, acting head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), violates his parliamentary immunity under the Cambodian constitution.

Kem Sokha is interviewed at CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh on June 23, 2016. 

© 2016 Reuters

“The Kem Sokha case is but the latest politically motivated prosecution targeting Cambodia’s political opposition, human rights workers, social activists, and public intellectuals,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “After his party’s poor showing in the last national elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen is using every trick in the book to neutralize the opposition before the 2018 elections.”

Cambodian authorities should drop the case against Kem Sokha, release all political prisoners and detainees, and end all political repression to make free and fair elections possible.

Government-controlled courts indicted Kem Sokha for failure to comply with a prosecutor’s summons to appear at the Phnom Penh court on May 26 as a witness in a frivolous case brought against other CNRP members. The indictment and trial violate Cambodia’s constitution, which provides for parliamentary immunity for members of the National Assembly unless two-thirds of the members vote to lift immunity.

Kem Sokha has been acting leader of the CNRP since original party leader Sam Rainsy decided to remain outside the country rather than be imprisoned for his conviction in absentia on trumped-up charges. Two opposition members of parliament are in prison, as are at least 17 local party officials and activists. At least 10 more opposition parliamentarians are facing charges. Over the past year, authorities have tried, charged, or placed under investigation at least 22 activists from human rights organizations, trade unions, and other groups in politically motivated cases. On July 10, Kem Ley, a frequent critic of the government, was assassinated in broad daylight in Phnom Penh.

In June and July, Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly called for Kem Sokha’s arrest, including at a Cambodian People’s Party Central Committee meeting. He also gave instructions to file cases against other CNRP figures. The courts used the pretext of an affair between Kem Sokha and a hairdresser, Srey Mom, to allege that two other CNRP parliamentarians were involved in “procurement for prostitution” because they facilitated the purported affair, which the authorities are claiming was a relationship of prostitution. Prostitution is not illegal in Cambodia, but procurement is a criminal offense. Srey Mom originally denied any relationship with Kem Sokha, but is now presenting herself as a victim of alleged procurement.

After his party’s poor showing in the last national elections, Prime Minister Hun Sen is using every trick in the book to neutralize the opposition before the 2018 elections.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Kem Sokha, in declaring in advance his refusal to appear as a witness on May 26, cited his parliamentary immunity. Article 80 of the 1993 constitution prohibits the prosecution, arrest, placement in custody, or detention of members of the National Assembly and Senate. The authorities asserted a spurious claim that his non-appearance was an “in flagrante delicto” offense, which, under the constitution, voids parliamentary immunity. Under general criminal law, catching persons in the act of committing a crime allows for the police to carry out an arrest immediately, without a warrant. The authorities’ claim that Kem Sokha’s actions amounted to an offense in flagrante delicto merely exposed the politically motivated aim to arbitrarily void his parliamentary immunity.

Since May 26, Kem Sokha has been under de facto house arrest in the CNRP headquarters, as Hun Sen and other government officials have said he would be arrested if he appeared in public. Kem Sokha reportedly left the CNRP headquarters only once since then, to participate in a July 24 march by several hundred thousand people to mourn and protest the killing of Kem Ley.

On June 14, a television station owned by Hun Sen’s sister, Hun Mana, broadcast that “public forces” – which include all branches of the armed forces – would be used to arrest Kem Sokha whenever ordered by a court. In a speech published on August 29 by a pro-government website, armed forces chief of staff Gen. Kun Kim reiterated that military forces would be used to seize Kem Sokha. On August 31, armed forces helicopters, gunboats, and masked troops armed with assault rifles conducted “exercises” immediately above and around CNRP headquarters. Spearheading this show of force were elements of Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit, which recently was implicated in political violence against two opposition parliamentarians in October 2015.

Deploying armed forces to enforce an arrest order or otherwise take part in law enforcement is contrary to international best practice and facilitates human rights violations. Military forces are trained and equipped for battlefield operations, not for engaging in policing in a rights-respecting way. A review of Cambodian media reports revealed only one recent instance of the military used for law enforcement, when in 2014 a provincial court tried a case of alleged armed offenders who had created a battlefield-like situation.

“Hun Sen’s threat to deploy helicopters and gunboats to arrest an opposition politician is both an outrageous act of intimidation and a signal of his determination to use military force to stay in power,” Adams said. “Foreign governments and donors should use their considerable leverage to stay his hand and give democracy a chance, but they need to act urgently and jointly to succeed.”