Cambodia’s Supreme Court on Thursday ruled that the country’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) be dissolved for its part in plotting a “coup” against the government, essentially eliminating any competition to Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of a general election next year.
The ruling on a case widely seen as politically motivated, and decided by a court populated by officials loyal to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), was largely expected amid a crackdown by the government in recent months on the opposition, independent media, and nongovernmental organizations.
Chief judge Dith Munty, a senior member of the CPP, announced the nine-member unanimous ruling in the capital Phnom Penh, and ordered 118 CNRP members banned from politics for the next five years. No appeal will be permitted, he said.
The CNRP issued a statement saying it refused to recognize the verdict, adding that the court had denied the party’s more than three million supporters their right to be represented in elections in July 2018. The CNRP intends to maintain its leadership structure, helmed by President Kem Sokha, who has been in pre-trial detention since early September following his arrest on charges of “treason.”
“The CNRP urges the international community to take concrete measures to rescue Cambodia in a timely manner by pressuring the government to release Kem Sokha and recognize the roles of the opposition party in order to ensure a free and fair election,” the statement said.
Kem Sokha’s lawyer, Hem Socheat, told RFA’s Khmer Service he was surprised that Thursday’s ruling could not be appealed and suggested that parliament’s Constitutional Council be made to explain the legislation that rendered the verdict final.
Immediately following the decision, Hun Sen posted a video clip to his Facebook account urging CNRP lawmakers and officials to take advantage of “a very rare opportunity … to join the CPP,” echoing similar calls he has made in recent weeks calling on the opposition to defect.
“If you do not join us and fail to hand over your stamps [for approving documents] then you will face legal action,” he warned.
But CNRP members said they would remain loyal to their party and continue to work on behalf of their constituents.
Sin Chanpeou Rozeth, CNRP chief of Battambang’s Au Char commune, told RFA that the government had only dissolved her party “on paper” but “cannot still the hearts and souls of our supporters.”
“As long as we still breathe, we remain hopeful that we will win,” she said.
“We will continue to fight for democracy and positive change in a democratic election. The ruling party continues to harbor their ill will to pressure and cajole members of the CNRP to defect. However, we remain strong and united.”
The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts—though the U.S. embassy has rejected any suggestion that Washington is interfering in Cambodian politics—and the government initiated legal proceedings against the CNRP for its alleged involvement in his case.
Since Kem Sokha’s arrest, more than half of CNRP lawmakers, along with deputy presidents Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang and a number of party activists, have fled Cambodia fearing retaliation by the CPP following important electoral gains by the opposition in June’s commune ballot, which are seen as pointing to a strong showing in next year’s vote.
Speaking from exile, Eng Chhay Eang told RFA Thursday that the CNRP plans to hold several meetings with party officials around the world to discuss “our detailed future action plan.”
“I call on all CNRP officials and supporters to remain strong, hopeful, and defiant,” he said.
“Never give up. We shall continue our mission to rescue our nation.”
Cambodia’s government had built up the presence of security forces across the country in anticipation of a public outcry in response to Thursday’s court decision, though CNRP officials said there were no immediate plans for protests.
The international community’s reaction to the verdict was swift and damning, with several observers saying it highlighted the lack of independence in Cambodia’s judicial system and signaled the end of a fragile democracy in the Southeast Asian nation, where Hun Sen has ruled for more than three decades.
The Netherlands-based International Court of Justice (ICJ) said in a statement that the Supreme Court verdict “significantly heightened the human rights and rule of law crisis” in Cambodia.
“The Supreme Court is irreparably interfering with the rights of potentially millions of Cambodians to freely choose their political representatives and vote for them in the upcoming elections,” said Kingsley Abbott, the ICJ’s Senior International Legal Adviser for Southeast Asia.
Abbot said that “at an absolute minimum” chief judge Dith Munty and other judges with roles in the CPP should have recused themselves from the case, as “there can be no starker example of an inherent conflict of interest,” noting that such concerns were consistent with a report ICJ released last month, which found a lack of independent judges and prosecutors to be the largest problem facing Cambodia’s justice system.
The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) on Thursday slammed the move as having “demolished the final pillar of Cambodian democracy and ushered in a new era of de facto one-party rule,” and demanded that international partners cancel their engagement in next year’s election.
APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament, said assistance with the elections should be contingent on the reinstatement of the CNRP, the unconditional release of Kem Sokha, and an end to all harassment of civil society, opposition members, and the media.
James Gomez, director of Southeast Asia and the Pacific for London-based Amnesty International, called Thursday’s decision “a blatant act of political repression that must be reversed immediately” and echoed ICJ’s concerns that Cambodia’s judiciary is “essentially used as an arm of the executive and as a political tool to silence dissent.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of New York-based Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, called the ruling “the culmination of Hun Sen's backdoor plan to ensure his victory in next year's election” based on a “politically contrived fairy tale written by the ruling CPP.”
“This is the death of democracy in Cambodia, it’s a political killing of the Paris Peace Accords vision that Cambodia should be a rights respecting, multi-party democracy,” he said in a statement, referring to the agreement that ended war between Vietnam and Cambodia in 1991 and led to the U.N.’s administration of Cambodia’s government while the country transitioned to a system of democratic elections.
Robertson called on Japan and the European Union to suspend financial and technical assistance for next year’s election and boycott election observation efforts unless the CNRP is reinstated, and said the rest of the international community should be “dusting off their sanctioning authority” and targeting senior CPP officials and military commanders responsible for the ongoing crackdown.
Emma Burnett of London-based Global Witness lamented the effect the ruling would have on Cambodia’s democracy, as well as “billions of aid dollars” spent on supporting Cambodians to develop a democratic system that respects rule of law and basic human rights.
“Foreign governments must demand that the decision to dissolve the opposition is overturned, that elections next year are free and fair, and that the corrupt are held to account,” she said.
“If these conditions are not met, they should apply targeted sanctions against Prime Minister Hun Sen and his regime that will prevent them from travelling and spending any ill-gotten gains overseas.”
The Supreme Court verdict elicited similar concerns in Washington, where U.S. Senator John McCain—chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee—called it a “direct attack on the democratic will of the Cambodian people” and also demanded sanctions do leveled against Hun Sen’s government in a statement released Thursday.
He pointed to Hun Sen’s crackdown on critics of his regime, which on Wednesday claimed two former RFA journalists police arrested on charges of “illegally collecting information for a foreign source,” as responsible for having “created a culture of fear among ordinary citizens” ahead of next year’s election.
“The United States must not tolerate these outrageous attacks on the Cambodian people,” he said, calling on U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration to “move quickly to sanction all senior Cambodian government officials responsible for violating human rights and subverting freedom in Cambodia.”
The RFA journalists are scheduled to be charged with espionage on Friday, local media reported.
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz had made similar threats of sanctions if Kem Sokha was not released ahead of a Nov. 9 deadline for voters to register for the 2018 ballot, but Hun Sen dismissed the Texas lawmaker’s threats as interference in Cambodia’s sovereign affairs, saying there is no need for “outsiders” to legitimize the outcome of elections in his country.