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) – Cambodian authorities should immediately and unconditionally drop bogus treason charges against the political opposition leader Kem Sokha, Human Rights Watch said today. On December 2, 2019, a Phnom Penh court sent his case, pending since September 2017, to trial which will start on January 15, 2020.

“The case against Kem Sokha has always been a dubious excuse to attack the political opposition,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director. “Prime Minister Hun Sen needs to demonstrate to the European Union that he is genuinely prepared to end his campaign of political repression of opposition voices.”

On November 10, the Cambodian authorities lifted Kem Sokha’s judicial supervision arrangement, which amounted to house arrest and arbitrary detention. The action came two days before the European Union (EU) delivered its preliminary conclusions on Cambodia’s non-compliance with international human rights treaties and core International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions in its review of Cambodia’s actions under the “Everything But Arms” (EBA) trade treaty. The EU will determine by February 12, 2020 whether Cambodia’s rights record has improved sufficiently to avoid losing the tariff-free entry to the EU market for Cambodian goods under the treaty.

The confidential EU report, which Human Rights Watch viewed, stated that the European Commission found the “detention and judicial supervision of Kem Sokha violate[d] Articles 19 and 25 of the ICCPR [International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights].” The commission found the Cambodian government had seriously and systematically violated its obligations under articles 19 and 25 of the ICCPR, which enshrine the right to freedom of expression and political participation.

The commission also stated that the crackdown on the political opposition had “a strong negative impact on democracy, political participation and pluralism in Cambodia.” The crackdown included repressive amendments to the Law on Political Parties, the dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and banning of 118 senior opposition members for participating in politics for five years, and the redistribution of CNRP’s seats in the National Assembly and in local councils.

Despite the EU’s preliminary conclusions, Hun Sen made clear that Sokha’s case was going to trial, and that proceedings “will not only take a day or two, or a month or two – it will take a long time.”

On September 3, 2017, eight members of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s personal bodyguard unit and about 100 police officers arrested Kem 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 selectively edited video of a speech he gave in 2013.

Sokha spent over two years in arbitrary detention. On June 5, 2018, the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, a body of independent experts, declared Sokha’s pretrial detention “arbitrary” and “politically motivated,” and said Cambodian authorities should immediately release him. Facing immense international pressure and concerns about his deteriorating health, Cambodian authorities released Sokha from the remote Tbong Khmum provincial Correctional Center III in September 2018 and placed him under de facto house arrest imposed through highly restrictive conditions of judicial supervision.

Kem Sokha’s arrest was followed by the Cambodian government’s decision to seek legal dissolution of the CNRP, which the ruling party-controlled Supreme Court ordered in November 2017. A significant number of CNRP senior leaders fled into exile, fearing arrest. On July 29, 2018, Cambodia organized elections that lacked the major opposition party and were neither free nor fair. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party won all 125 seats in the National Assembly, effectively turning Cambodia into a single-party state.

In August 2019, Sam Rainsy and other exiled CNRP leaders announced they would return to Cambodia on November 9 to mark the country’s Independence Day. The Cambodian government reacted by cracking down with a wave of arrests of CNRP members and supporters. Authorities filed charges against them including plotting a coup, incitement, and discrediting judicial decisions. The government charged over 100 CNRP members and supporters, and arrested and jailed at least 65 of them in pretrial detention.

Repressive government measures, including banning CNRP leaders from returning to Cambodia and coordinating travel restrictions with Thailand and other neighboring countries, ultimately scuttled the CNRP’s planned November 9 return to the country.

After the EU sent its report to the Cambodian government on November 12, Hun Sen ordered the release on bail of 74 opposition members arrested between August and November. However, the authorities did not drop the charges against any of them. Before this wave of conditional releases, the government had held nearly 90 political prisoners throughout the country, most of them CNRP members and supporters.

“The EU shouldn’t be fooled by Hun Sen’s release of opposition members without dropping charges,” Robertson said. “The EU should keep up the pressure until exiled CNRP leaders can safely return and the party can fully take part in a fair democratic process.”