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Kem Sokha, the imprisoned former president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 3, 2023. © 2023 Heng Sinith/AP Photo

(Bangkok) – The Phnom Penh Appeal Court on January 30, 2024, denied the Cambodian political opposition leader Kem Sokha’s request to review the terms of his home detention, Human Rights Watch said today. Sokha, 70, who was sentenced on March 3, 2023, to a 27-year term on a politically motivated treason conviction, must continue to seek the approval of the prosecutor’s office for his defense lawyers to visit him. The ruling was during the first of nine expected appeal hearings in his case.

“The appeals court’s failure to reconsider Kem Sokha’s unjust imprisonment shows that Cambodia’s new prime minister has done nothing to address the Cambodian judiciary’s lack of independence,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Cambodian authorities should promptly right this wrong by quashing Kem Sokha’s bogus conviction and immediately releasing him.”

Sokha’s defense team asked the appeals court to restore unrestricted access to counsel and revisit the conditions of supervision while the appeal of his conviction is pending. Sokha is currently confined to his house and not allowed to speak with anyone other than his family without prior court approval. Sokha’s lawyer raised several instances of interference with his right to consult his client that resulted from the court order requiring advance approval by the prosecutor’s office before defense counsel can meet Sokha. Sokha’s defense team also raised the issue of infringements on his family and associates’ right to privacy as well as having to suffer excessive inspections and surveillance during visits to Sokha’s home.

Sokha is the former president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which the ruling-party-controlled Supreme Court dissolved in 2017. Following his arrest after midnight on September 3, 2017, the authorities held Sokha for more than two years in pretrial detention in the remote Tboung Khmum provincial Correction Center III prison. Prison officials held him in isolation, denied him effective medical treatment, and refused access to all visitors other than his immediate family and his lawyers.

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 that the Cambodian authorities should immediately release him. UN experts also stated that they “have strong grounds to believe that the treason charge against Mr. Sokha is politically motivated and forms part of a larger pattern of the misapplication of laws to target political opponents and critics of the Government,” and that the “entire process of Mr. Sokha’s arrest and detention has been tainted by irregularities, and clear neglect of international human rights law and Cambodian law.”

On February 12, 2020, the European Union announced its decision to partially withdraw tariff preferences granted to Cambodia under its Everything But Arms trade program “due to the serious and systematic violations of … human rights principles.” In March 2022, the EU passed a resolution calling for the international community to “apply pressure and take public actions to provide protection for activists and human rights defenders,” while also noting that the Sokha trial leaves “the politician stripped of fundamental rights of political participation.”

The EU again passed a resolution on Sokha’s case on March 14, 2023, following his treason conviction, stating that “the politically motivated charges against Kem Sokha are designed to eliminate one of the main opposition leaders; whereas Mr. Sokha has been subject to arbitrary detention, mistreatment in custody, and banned from any political activity since his arrest in 2017.”

Government prosecutors claimed without basis that Sokha was involved in a long-running scheme of foreign collusion to overthrow the government. Prosecutors also opened mass trials in 2021 against other political opposition members that continued into 2022. On June 14, 2022, 51 opposition politicians and activists were convicted in a mass trial on unsubstantiated charges of “incitement” and “conspiracy.” The court sentenced 12 defendants to 8 years in prison, and another 19 defendants to 6 years. Another 20 defendants received 5-year suspended sentences. Many of the defendants were tried in absentia, with 27 currently in exile.

The authorities have continued to wrongfully prosecute members of opposition political parties, Human Rights Watch said. In March 2023, a court sentenced the Cambodia National Heart Party co-founder Seam Pluk and 12 other members of the political opposition to prison terms on fabricated, politically motivated charges connected to gathering signatures on party registration documents. In March, the authorities arrested two former CNRP members for “insulting the monarchy” on Facebook.

In July, the National Election Committee fined and banned 18 opposition party members from holding elected office for 10 to 20 years after they were convicted in absentia for inciting voters to spoil their national election ballots. They included 6 former lawmakers from the dissolved CNRP and 11 activists.

In March and April 2023, Human Rights Watch interviewed four opposition party members who were assaulted in Phnom Penh. There were multiple similarities in the attacks carried out on the street by men in dark clothes and wrap-around motorcycle helmets on motorbikes using an extendable metal baton as a weapon. All the victims interviewed said they believe they were targeted because of their public participation in the activities of the opposition Candlelight Party.

“The persecution of Kem Sokha and other opposition members with impunity exposes the lack of independence of the Cambodian judiciary,” Robertson said. “Cambodia’s aid and trade partners should publicly condemn the injustices against Kem Sokha, and make it clear to Prime Minister Hun Manet that there will be no business as usual until Kem Sokha is freed.”

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