Cambodia released opposition leader Kem Sokha on bail Monday, a year after he was arrested on treason charges widely seen as politically motivated, but critics said he should never have been arrested and called for his banned party to be reinstated.
The 65-year-old opposition chief had been held for a year in pretrial detention in Trapeang Phlong prison in remote Tboung Khmum province near the border with Vietnam.
Kem Sokha, who had been denied bail six times despite fears that he was suffering from medical complications, was released due to health concerns, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court said.
Cambodian government-affiliated Fresh News quoted Prime Minister Hun Sen as telling a group of Cambodian students in the Chinese capital Beijing on Monday that Kem Sokha was released on bail for health reasons.
Speaking to a crowd in front of Kem Sokha’s home in the capital Phnom Penh, Kem Sokha’s lawyer Meng Sopheary apologized on his behalf, saying that the opposition leader could not come out to thank and greet them in person because he is under court restrictions.
“He thanks everyone for coming to boost his morale, but he cannot come out to see you because of the judicial restrictions that he has to obey or he will be taken back to prison,” she said.
The release of the former president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party from pre-trial detention carried the conditions that he must stay within a block radius of his home, cannot meet with CNRP officials or foreigners, and cannot or host any rallies or political activities, the lawyer said.
He still faces up to 30 years if convicted of treason.
Former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, who has lived in self-exile in Paris since November 2015 to escape charges that he says are politically motivated, wrote on his Facebook page that “Kem Sokha’s release is not enough.”
“The groundless and ludicrous charges against him must be dropped. Once those charges are dropped, there will no longer be any grounds for maintaining the dissolution of the CNRP, which then will have to be reinstated,” he wrote.
Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 for plotting to overthrow the government and the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP two months later and banned senior members from participating in politics for five years.
These moves, part of a wider crackdown on civil society and media, paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to sweep all 125 seats contested in an election in July that was widely dismissed as unfree and unfair.
Hun Sen, who secured another five-year term to add to his 33 years in office after official election results were announced on Aug. 15, has made a practice of heavy-handed crackdowns on his critics, followed by a relaxation of restrictions after facing international condemnation.
Rong Chhun, a labor union leader and former member of the National Election Committee, said that the release on bail of Kem Sokha was the result of international pressure.
“The international community, the E.U and the U.S condemned the CPP repeatedly. They want Cambodia to return to the situation before the election,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
CNRP activist Sorn Dara, a university professor, told RFA that “Hun Sen knows that, if Kem Sokha had died in prison, he would not only face the international community and the people of Cambodia, but also he will face history.”
The Cambodian government “obviously recognized the public relations disaster that would occur if something happened to him in detention, and finally heeded his wife’s appeals to release him on his own recognizance for health reasons,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
“There’s been no justice served here, just the temporary release of an opposition political leader that prosecutors could undo at any time,” he added in a statement.
The U.S. recently announced an expansion of visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country, as part of a series of measures aimed at pressuring Cambodia to reverse course.
The European Union, which was the second biggest trade partner of Cambodia in 2017, also withdrew support ahead of the ballot and is currently reviewing a preferential trade scheme for Cambodian exports based on the country’s election environment.
‘This is meaningless’
Last month, King Norodom Sihamoni granted a royal pardon at Hun Sen’s behest to 14 jailed CNRP activists who were serving long sentences for “insurrection” in connection with anti-government street protests in 2014 that turned into violent clashes with police and security forces.
Their release followed the freeing by royal decree of Tep Vanny—a prominent land activist—and three other campaigners convicted for their roles in a protest over a land grab, as well as the granting of bail to two former RFA reporters who are facing charges of “espionage.”
Soeng Sekarona, a spokesman for Cambodian human rights group ADHOC, called Monday’s release of Kem Sokha a gesture to “show that the political tension in Cambodia is improved, but this is meaningless.”
“The international community, particularly aid donor countries and the EU, will not take this kind of release into their consideration,” he said.
Amnesty International urged Cambodian authorities to allow Kem Sokha to seek proper medical treatment and to throw out the case against him.
“The fact remains that after more than a year in pre-trial detention, he still faces a set of baseless, politically motivated charges that carry a heavy prison sentence,” said Minar Pimple, Amnesty International’s senior director of global operations.
“Kem Sokha is now a prisoner in his own home. We call on the Cambodian authorities to drop all charges against him and make his release permanent, full and unconditional,” he said.
Charles Santiago, chairman of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights and a member of Malaysia’s parliament, said the timing and terms of Kem Sokha’s release “point to the political nature of the charges against him” and show “a government seeking to legitimize the illegitimate.”
“Whilst there remains only one political party in parliament and no viable opposition, and until free and fair elections are held, the international community must continue to see this government for what it is: a dictatorship," he said in a statement.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Paul Eckert.