(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should end its politically motivated prosecution of the opposition party leader and release him unconditionally, Human Rights Watch said today. Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted on pending charges of treason and “colluding with foreigners” under article 443 of Cambodia’s penal code. The authorities are pursuing these baseless charges despite Sokha’s constitutionally guaranteed immunity as a member of parliament.
“The Cambodian government has concocted treason charges against Kem Sokha for political purposes, aiming to end the 2018 election campaign before it even begins,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Prime Minister Hun Sen is apparently not going to let democratic principles get in the way of his continued rule. Countries that contributed for years to Cambodia’s rebuilding should denounce this betrayal of the 1991 Paris Peace Accords.”
Shortly after midnight on September 3, 2017, about 200 police arrived at Sokha’s home in Toulkork, Phnom Penh. The police dismissed requests to produce a warrant, forced their way into the residence where Sokha and his wife, Te Chanmono, were sleeping, and detained him. The police then confiscated his mobile phone and led him away in handcuffs to an undisclosed location.
Government-aligned media outlet Fresh News was the first to report the arrest by linking a video from the Cambodian Broadcasting Network allegedly showing footage of Kem Sokha discussing secret plans of a conspiracy between him and “other foreigners to harm the Kingdom of Cambodia.”
Prime Minister Hun Sen presaged the charges on August 23, 2017, when he made a speech in which he accused the CNRP of “conduct[ing] traitorous [acts] to the nation and its people.” Hun Sen also recently stated that he will not let “outside powers” interfere in Cambodia’s internal affairs, ordering that there be a further investigation about any foreigners who are involved with Sokha for allegedly “betraying his own nation.”
Fresh News has since named others that the government has linked as possible suspects to Sokha’s case, including members of parliament such as Pol Ham, the recently named acting CNRP party president, and Son Chhay; as well as party spokespersons Nhem Ponnarith and Ou Chanrith; and Sokha’s daughters, Kem Mona and Kem Samathida.
On September 5, prosecutors formally began criminal proceedings against Sokha by filing an introductory submission, and an investigating judge then questioned Sokha, who will remain a suspect under judicial investigation until the investigating judge decides whether to charge Sokha.
“Prosecuting Kem Sokha for treason would be a devastating setback not only for human rights in Cambodia, but for the country’s hopes of future democratic development,” Robertson said. “Once again the government is using its control over the judiciary to manipulate the legal system to silence political opponents.”
Cambodia’s human rights situation has rapidly deteriorated during the past year as the July 2018 national elections approach. After the opposition mounted a strong showing in national elections in 2013 that caught the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) by surprise, Prime Minister Hun Sen has overseen an alarming increase of threatening political rhetoric, including repeated threats of violence and other forms of intimidation by government officials directed at dissidents and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). This was especially evident in the lead-up to this year’s commune elections. Hun Sen and several senior military and ministry figures, including Defense Minister Tea Banh and CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan, have repeatedly warned that the military would “smash … teeth” of protesters and “not be neutral” when it comes to siding with the CPP. Hun Sen added that any election victory by the political opposition would likely lead to “civil war,” and he threatened to use violence against persons who mount a “color revolution,” a term that attempts to portray organized peaceful dissent as the violent overthrow of the government.
While campaigning prior to the 2017 commune elections, Hun Sen publicly said he would be “willing to eliminate 100 to 200 people” to protect “national security,” and that the opposition should “prepare their coffins.” After the vote, Hun Sen repeated this claim and made a transparent reference to exiled former CNRP party leader Sam Rainsy, suggesting that Rainsy knew he would be targeted for violence. On August 2, Minister of Social Affairs Vong Sauth said that protesters who disputed the outcome of the 2018 elections would be “hit with the bottom end of bamboo poles” – a chilling reference to a punishment technique used by the Khmer Rouge – and threatened civil servants in his ministry with termination if they did not support the CPP.
The CPP-dominated parliament passed two sets of repressive amendments to the Law on Political Parties in 2017. These changes allow authorities to dissolve political parties and ban party leaders from political activity without fair or transparent procedures or an appeals process. The amendments contain numerous restrictions tailored to create obstacles for opposition parties, most notably provisions that compel parties to face dissolution unless they expel leaders who have been convicted of a criminal charge. This provision bars Sam Rainsy from involvement in the party, and poses a threat to Kem Sokha, who would lose party leadership if convicted of treason or other charges. The ministry of interior also enjoys broad authority to indefinitely suspend a party based on broad, vaguely defined restrictions that violate due process and rights to free expression and association. Cambodian law provides the government a powerful tool to weaken the opposition or dissolve parties outright, Human Rights Watch said.
Sokha’s arbitrary arrest aligns with government pronouncements that they will do whatever is necessary to maintain their more than 30-year rule, as Human Rights Watch has extensively documented in previous reports.
“Cambodia’s political allies and donors should be publicly alarmed by the outrageous charges Kem Sokha faces and this attack on the democratic process,” Robertson said. “They should put Hun Sen on notice that if he doesn’t reverse course, it will be impossible to consider next year’s elections free and fair.”