Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha arrested, accused of treason

Hun Sen government accuses Kem Sokha of conspiring to carry out regime change under U.S. guidance.

Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha casts his ballot in local elections at a polling station in Phnom Penh, June 4, 2017.

UPDATED at 10:45 A.M. EDT on 2017-09-03

Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested in the capital Phnom Penh early on Sunday and accused of treason in a move critics said showed that Prime Minister Hun Sen was intensifying his attacks on opponents before 2018 elections.

“The Government wishes to inform the public that on September 3, at 12:35 am, Kem Sokha was arrested by the judicial police based on the in flagrante delicto crime under the Cambodian Code of Criminal Procedures," said a government statement issued on Sunday.

"The forgoing secret conspiracy is treason as stipulated in and punishable under article 443 of the Penal Code of Cambodia (Conspiracy with foreign power) under Chapter 2 of Breach of State Security and an act against the nation," said the statement, which also included a government appeal for calm.

Muth Chantha, Kem Sokha’s advisor, confirms that Kem Sokha and eight bodyguards of his were arrested at Kem Sokha’s home in Phnom Penh.

“It is a big deal and grave concern when the main and only opposition party president is arrested. This will certainly affect democracy and especially the upcoming national election,” Muth Chantha told RFA's Khmer Service.

Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Spheak told RFA that Kem Sokha was taken to Tra Peang Plong prison in Tbong Khmum province, near Cambodia's border with Vietnam.

The CNRP condemned the arrest, demanded Kem Sokha's unconditional release and appealed for international intervention in the case.

"The CNRP regards such a swift arrest, which was made in middle of the night while Kem Sokha is protected by his parliamentary immunity, as politically motivated and a violation of Cambodian laws and the constitution," the party said in a statement.

"The CNRP calls for his immediate and unconditional release and appeals to the international community to intervene to secure his release and stop the authorities from committing all forms of threats, intimidation and suppression of the CNRP and its officials at all levels," it said.

The arrest followed the expulsion last week of U.S.-funded NGO the National Democratic Institute, the shuttering of independent radio stations,  and other moves by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) that critics say are aimed at silencing voices critical of the party and Hun Sen ahead of national elections next year.

In Washington, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert condemned the arrest and the recent series of restrictions on civil society in Cambodia.

"We note with grave concern the Cambodian government’s arrest of Kem Sokha, respected leader of the political opposition, on a number of charges that appear to be politically motivated.  Kem Sokha has a long, distinguished, and internationally recognized commitment to human rights and peaceful democracy," said Nauert's statement.

"This government move follows a number of troubling recent steps, including the imposition of unprecedented restrictions on independent media and civil society. These measures undercut Cambodia's progress in recent decades and raise serious questions about the government's ability to organize credible national elections in 2018 which produce an outcome that enjoys democratic legitimacy," she added.

Reports in government-aligned media outlets in recent weeks have regularly attacked the CNRP, linking the daughters of party leader Kem Sokha to foreign nationals accused of plotting to overthrow the country’s government.

On Saturday, the pro-government Fresh News released a heavily edited video it said came from the Facebook account “Khmer Child” accusing Kem Sokha of following U.S. plans to pursue regime change in Cambodia, where Hun Sen has ruled for more than 32 years.

"The video clip posted by the Cambodian Broadcasting Network (CBN) based in Australia and other pieces of evidence the authorities have collected clearly show the secret conspiracy plot between Kem Sokha, his people and foreign nationals which impacts Cambodia," said the government statement.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said the arrest of Kem Sokha was a sign Hun Sen is unwilling to face legal, peaceful challengs to his three-decade rule.

"Clearly, Hun Sen and the CPP are afraid of democracy. They're afraid of free and fair elections, so they are using force through the legal system," he told RFA,

"Even doing it legally is not enough in Hun Sen's Cambodia, because he can just make up any charge, any time and this charge of treason is complely fake. It's dishonest.

Adams urged international aid donors to condemn the arrest and put pressure on the government to make "Hun Sen realize that he cannot govern as a dictator and retain any legitimacy at all."

Khem Sokha's arrest comes nine months after he received a royal pardon for charges that could have sent him to jail. The reprieve was granted by King Norodom Sihamoni following a request from Hun Sen.

Until the Dec. 2, 2016 pardon, Kem Sokha had been hiding out in the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh since police attempted to arrest him in May for ignoring court orders to appear as a witness in a pair of defamation cases related to his alleged affair with a hairdresser.

Kem Sokha has always maintained that his legal problems were politically motivated, and most independent analysts had agreed with him, viewing the cases against them as part of CPP efforts to hobble the opposition before June's local elections ad next year's parliament poll.

The CPP won June’s commune elections, but the CNRP received nearly 44 percent of all votes to the ruling party’s 51 percent, in an outcome that many see as a bellwether for next year’s parliamentary ballot.

Reported by Sonorng Kher for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Paul Eckert