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Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party President Kem Sokha shows off his ballot before voting in local elections in Chak Angre Leu on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sunday, June 4, 2017. © 2017 AP Photo/Heng Sinith
 (New York) – Cambodian authorities should immediately and unconditionally release opposition party leader Kem Sokha from house arrest and drop the politically motivated criminal case against him, Human Rights Watch said today. Sokha, president of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) at the time of his arrest, has been without his freedom for over 18 months.

On March 19, 2019, an investigating judge in Cambodia’s politically controlled courts rejected Sokha’s renewed request to drop the charges against him. The judge provided no update or additional information about the completion of his investigation and whether the case will be sent to trial.

“For a year and a half, Cambodian authorities have imprisoned Kem Sokha, first in a remote jail and now in his own home; denied him visits from colleagues, diplomats, and journalists; and conducted a baseless investigation with no end in sight,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The government should immediately end Sokha’s arbitrary detention and release him.”

On September 3, 2017, eight members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit and about 100 police officers arrested Sokha at his home in Phnom Penh. An investigating judge charged him with “colluding with foreigners” under article 443 of the Cambodian criminal code, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 years in prison. He was immediately stripped of his parliamentary immunity on the grounds that he was caught in the act of committing a crime, even though the purported evidence against him was a highly edited video of a speech he gave in 2013, more than four years earlier, in which he explained that his party had received advice from a United States-based NGO.

On June 5, 2018, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, a body of independent experts, declared Kem Sokha’s pretrial detention “arbitrary” and “politically motivated,” and said that Cambodian authorities should immediately release him.

Sokha spent a year in pretrial detention in a remote jail during which his health sharply deteriorated. On September 10, 2018, a judge ordered him released under highly restrictive conditions of judicial supervision that amount to house arrest. Under article 208 of Cambodia’s criminal procedure law, the investigating judge may only detain a felony suspect on legally justified grounds for up to 18 months. However, the judge has wide discretion to determine bail conditions, which allows for severe restrictions on the suspect’s freedom of movement and other rights. There is no provision in Cambodian law that allows for house arrest.

Marking the 18-months Sokha has spent in detention, senior members of his since-dissolved party issued a statement on March 3, describing him as “the symbol of positive change and non-violent struggle for freedom, respect for human rights and democracy in Cambodia.”

Sokha’s arrest was soon followed, in November 2017, by Hun Sen’s decision to dissolve the CNRP. The CPP-controlled Supreme Court also banned 118 CNRP members from political activity for five years. The Cambodian authorities have since forced into exile most of the party’s senior leadership on the basis of fabricated harassment charges. These moves were made in advance of national elections in 2018, in which the CNRP was expected to challenge the longstanding rule of the CPP. On July 29, 2018, the CPP staged elections without a major opposition party, extending its autocratic rule for another term.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen has used every unlawful trick in the book to solidify his one-party authoritarian rule and remove the one viable opposition party,” Adams said. “Cambodia’s donors and trade partners should insist on Kem Sokha’s unconditional release as a first step to stop Cambodia’s precipitous human rights slide.” 

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