(Bangkok) – Cambodian authorities should drop all charges and immediately release the opposition leader Kem Sokha, Human Rights Watch said today. On August 22, 2018, Cambodia’s Supreme Court will consider the latest bail request from Sokha, head of the since-dissolved main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). He has been held on fabricated charges for 11 months in the remote Tboung Khmum province.
“The opposition leader Kem Sokha has now been jailed for nearly a year on preposterous treason charges, because he had the audacity to lead an opposition party in Cambodia,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “Governments concerned about the end of democratic rule in Cambodia should demand the immediate release of Kem Sokha and all other political prisoners.”
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.” On September 3, eight members of Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit and about 100 police officers arrested Sokha at his home in Phnom Penh. The authorities stripped him of his parliamentary immunity by alleging they had caught him in the act of committing a crime, the purported evidence of which was a highly edited video of a speech he gave in 2013. An investigating judge charged him with “colluding with foreigners” under article 443 of the Cambodian criminal code. If convicted, Sokha faces up to 30 years in prison.
In March, the Supreme Court upheld lower court decisions denying his motions to be released on bail. On March 5, a lower court extended his pretrial detention for another six months. It could be extended again, for a second and final six-month period.
In its Opinion No. 9/2018, published on June 5, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention declared Sokha’s pretrial detention “arbitrary” and “politically motivated,” and said Cambodian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release him.
Sokha suffers from serious health problems, but prison authorities in Tboung Khmum have denied him appropriate medical treatment. Among the health problems exacerbated by his detention are high blood pressure, severe pain in his shoulder, and diabetes. He now has difficulty standing up for long periods, his lawyers report.
Prison authorities are holding him in isolation and have refused access to all visitors other than his immediate family and his lawyers. The government has rejected repeated requests for visits from international observers, United Nations officials, foreign diplomats, and civil society representatives. The government also denied a request to visit from Rhona Smith, the UN expert on human rights in Cambodia. Sokha’s lawyers have also reported that their documents are regularly checked before meeting with Sokha at the detention facility.
The UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules) prohibit “indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement.” Any such confinement may amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment in violation of international law applicable to Cambodia.
“The government’s treatment of Kem Sokha and other political prisoners will lend insight into Cambodia’s future after July’s sham elections,” Adams said. “The EU, US, and other governments need to make their views felt to Hun Sen on this and other politically motivated cases.”