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Cambodia National Rescue Party's President Kem Sokha greets media at his house in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on Monday, Nov. 11, 2019.  © 2019 AP Photo/Heng Sinith
(Bangkok) – The Cambodian authorities should immediately and unconditionally dismiss all charges against the political opposition leader Kem Sokha and let him resume his political activities, Human Rights Watch said today. The government should allow exiled opposition leaders and supporters to return to Cambodia, after blocking their return on November 9, 2019.

On November 10, a Phnom Penh court announced the partial lifting of judicial supervision on Sokha, the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). While Sokha is no longer confined to his own home, where he has been under effective house arrest since September 2018, he remains banned from engaging in any political activity or leaving Cambodia.

“Cambodia’s release of Kem Sokha from house arrest without dropping all charges or allowing any political activities is just rebooting his mistreatment,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “The European Union and other foreign governments should not be fooled but should ramp-up pressure on the government to immediately and unconditionally release Sokha and other prisoners held for exercising their basic rights.”

On September 3, 2017, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit and about 100 police officers arrested Sokha at his home in Phnom Penh. He was charged with “colluding with foreigners,” which carries a maximum 30-year prison term. 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 evidence was a highly edited video of a 2013 speech he gave in Australia.

Foreign governments and the United Nations special rapporteur on Cambodia, Rhona Smith, have repeatedly called for dropping charges against Sokha and releasing him. After he spent a year in what the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had declared to be “arbitrary pre-trial detention” in a prison facility along the Vietnamese border, he was released into restrictive house arrest due to deteriorating health conditions. The investigating judge has not indicated when the investigation will be closed.

In November 2017, the government-controlled Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and banned 118 party members from political activity for five years; 107 of them are still banned.

The acting CNRP leader, Sam Rainsy, announced from exile on August 16 that he and other exiled party leaders and supporters would return to Cambodia on November 9, Independence Day. In response, Cambodian authorities rolled out a series of repressive measures including military threats and an uptick of harassment and arrests of people affiliated with the party or supporting their return.

Between mid-August and November 8, Cambodian authorities charged 105 CNRP members with various fabricated charges, including plotting against the state, incitement to commit a felony, and discrediting judicial decisions, and detained 57 of them.

The Cambodian government prevented Rainsy and other party leaders from returning on November 9 by warning airlines they would face sanctions if they carried banned people to Phnom Penh, and enlisting the support of neighboring governments of Thailand, Vietnam, and Laos to prevent any crossings at land borders. On September 17, Hun Sen stated that the government had sent ASEAN countries arrest warrants for Sam Rainsy to prevent him from transiting through them to reach Cambodia.

Radio Free Asia reported on November 1 that the Cambodian Civil Aviation Authority had issued a directive instructing 47 commercial airlines not to allow Rainsy to board their aircraft. Cambodia’s state secretary of civil aviation clarified that this ban also extended to seven other CNRP officials as well as Rainsy’s wife, Tioulong Saumura.

On November 8, Thai Airways did not allow Rainsy to board a flight from Paris to Bangkok. He instead traveled to Kuala Lumpur. The exiled CNRP deputy leader, Mu Sochua, also traveled to Malaysia after the Cambodian ambassador to Indonesia interrupted her news conference in Indonesia.

On November 9, local human rights groups reported armored military vehicles at the Phnom Penh International Airport and in Cambodian provinces bordering Thailand, with a heavy military presence at Thai-Cambodian border checkpoints. People crossing the border reported being checked by Thai and Cambodian officials against wanted posters of exiled opposition members. In a number of instances near the Thai town of Aranyaprathet, Thai police detained Cambodians holding foreign passports and questioned them. Cambodian journalists also reported facing hostile questioning by military police while covering events at border crossings.

Cambodia’s Justice Ministry asserted that the government’s recent “measures are not political restrictions of rights and freedom.” Yet as a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Cambodia is obligated under article 12 to ensure that “[n]o one shall be arbitrarily deprived of the right to enter his own country,” and under article 25, to allow every citizen to “take part in the conduct of public affairs.”

In 2018, the European Union began a review procedure for suspension of the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preferences granted to Cambodia, based on the government’s non-compliance with international human rights treaties and core International Labor Organization conventions. The action puts Cambodia’s tariff-free access to the EU market for certain exported goods, such as garments, at risk. The EU’s decision should be final by February 2020. On November 12, the EU will declare in a preliminary decision on whether it will suspend Cambodia’s EBA agreement.

“Cambodia’s release of Kem Sokha from house arrest is a blatant attempt to appease EU demands for substantial rights improvements, which is condition of the EBA trade agreement,” Adams said. “The EU should recognize that during the past three months, Cambodia has unjustly charged 100 more CNRP members and imprisoned nearly 60. All those cases should be dismissed and those detained immediately and unconditionally released.”

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