Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen attends a meeting with garment workers, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia on November 8, 2017.

© 2017 Reuters/Samrang Pring

Cambodia’s Supreme Court should resist government pressure to rule on dissolving the country’s main opposition party, Human Rights Watch said today. Cambodia’s international donors and supporters should state clearly that dissolution of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) will delegitimize national elections scheduled for 2018.

On November 16, 2017, the Supreme Court will rule on a case brought at the behest of Prime Minister Hun Sen in October to dissolve the CNRP. The Cambodian government has accused the CNRP of trying to stage a “color revolution” – a reference to popular uprisings around the globe – but has provided no evidence of illegality in its court filings.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen seems afraid that he will lose elections scheduled for 2018, so he is using the nuclear option to destroy the opposition,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Although the Supreme Court is effectively an organ of the ruling party, it has a historic chance to show some independence and uphold the rule of law.”

Although the Supreme Court is effectively an organ of the ruling party, it has a historic chance to show some independence and uphold the rule of law.

Brad Adams

Asia Director

Hun Sen has announced that upon dissolution of the CNRP, its parliamentary seats will be redistributed to other political parties. He has pressured CNRP members who won seats in June commune elections to switch to the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), stating that any other seats won by the CNRP will be taken by the ruling CPP. The CNRP made significant electoral gains during both the 2013 national elections and the 2017 commune elections.

Hun Sen, who has held office for more than three decades, Defense Minister Tea Banh, and other senior government and military officials have made numerous public threats to use force against any Cambodian who protests the dissolution of the CNRP. More than half of CNRP members of parliament have fled Cambodia in recent weeks, fearing arrest or violence.

In calling for the court to dissolve the CNRP, the government has equated efforts and plans by the opposition to win the next election with treason. On September 3, authorities arbitrarily arrested CNRP President Kem Sokha at his home in Phnom Penh and took him to a remote prison near the Vietnam border, where he has been held without adequate access to his lawyers. Kem Sokha has been charged with treason for discussing the training on democracy and party-building his party received from United States government-funded organizations. These organizations have also long provided similar training to the CPP.

Kem Sokha’s arrest followed multiple trumped-up criminal cases and convictions against the CNP’s founding president, Sam Rainsy. Sam Rainsy has been forced into exile to avoid long prison terms in cases that have been rubber-stamped by the Supreme Court.

The planned dissolution of the CNRP is part of a massive, broader crackdown by Hun Sen and the CPP against all forms of peaceful dissent. In recent months, the government has forced the closure of the Cambodia Daily, independent local radio stations, and FM stations that re-broadcast Radio Free Asia and Voice of America’s Khmer language service. At least 20 of the approximately 36 opposition and civil society activists arbitrarily arrested since May 2015 remain imprisoned; many of them were prosecuted in summary trials that fell far short of international standards.

“Hun Sen is in the process of destroying pluralism, free speech, and all other human rights gains since the signing of the Paris Peace Agreements in 1991,” Adams said. “Donors and diplomats have a choice: do nothing while the chances for democracy are extinguished, or send the message that there will be serious political, economic, and diplomatic consequences if Hun Sen returns Cambodia to a de facto one-party state.”