Cambodia’s opposition chief Kem Sokha has vowed not to “treat my supporters as shields” and urged them to adhere to the principles of nonviolence in a message marking his second year in detention while awaiting trial on treason charges, widely seen as politically motivated.
Issuing a rare statement on his Facebook account from de facto house arrest on Monday, the president of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) said he is willing to sacrifice everything for his country’s democracy, and urged his supporters to refrain from violent protests in his name.
“I know that as a democrat and an opposition leader, I will face untold amounts of danger and suffering, but I ask that my supporters adhere to the principles of nonviolence, despite my detention,” he wrote.
“While I am a victim, I accept that. As a leader, I won’t treat my supporters as shields. I appeal to all Cambodians to stop viewing one another as enemies, because this will destroy the country and we have already suffered enough.”
Cambodia’s Supreme Court banned the CNRP in November 2017 for its role in an alleged plot to topple Hun Sen’s regime, two months after police arrested Kem Sokha and accused him of planning a coup. The opposition leader faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of treason, but no date has been set for his trial.
The moves against the political opposition, along with a wider crackdown by Prime Minister Hun Sen on NGOs and the independent media, paved the way for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election.
Cambodia drew condemnation from Western governments following the ballot, with the U.S. imposing visa sanctions on officials seen as limiting democracy in the country and the EU launching a six-month monitoring period that ended last month to determine whether Cambodia should continue to qualify for tax-free access to the European market under the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade scheme.
On Tuesday, Kem Sokha’s lawyer Meng Sopheary called on the investigating judge in her client’s case to drop all charges against him.
“The judge has restricted Kem Sokha’s freedom,” she said, noting that under the terms of his de facto house arrest, he must stay within a block radius of his home, cannot meet with CNRP officials or foreigners, and cannot speak at or host any rallies or political activities.
“This is the first case I’ve seen as a lawyer in which the judge has set such strict conditions,” she added.
Kem Sokha’s comments came days after more than two dozen local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) issued a joint letter calling on the United Nations Human Rights Council to address what they called a “human rights crisis in Cambodia” at its 42nd session, to be held from Sept. 9-27 in Geneva.
The groups noted that since the general election last year, “respect for human rights in Cambodia has further declined,” and listed among their concerns the detention of key opposition figures, including Kem Sokha, and the continued crackdown on voices critical of Hun Sen’s regime.
“In September 2018, authorities transferred CNRP head Kem Sokha after more than a year of pre-trial detention in a remote prison to his Phnom Penh residence under highly restrictive ‘judicial supervision’ that amounts to house arrest,” the letter said.
“Cambodian law has no provision for house arrest and there is no evidence that Sokha has committed any internationally recognizable offense.”
With a resolution expected to be presented at the session to renew the mandate of the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia for another two years, the groups urged the council to “ensure that the resolution reflects the gravity of the situation in the country” and called for additional monitoring by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Ministry of Justice spokesman Chin Malin on Tuesday dismissed claims that Kem Sokha is being held under house arrest, saying that while under court supervision he is free to “leave his home.”
“It is his right to stay at home, but he can travel outside—according to the judge’s conditions—and if he wants to travel further, he can make a request to the judge,” he said, adding that Kem Sokha “isn’t being detained.”
“The NGOs’ comments are not an accurate portrayal of the law.”
Analyst Lao Mong Hai, however, disputed Chin Malin’s representation of Kem Sokha’s situation, adding that the CNRP president never should have been arrested to begin with.
“Since his arrest, and up until this 24th month of detention, his situation has been very unjust,” he said.
Lao Mong Hai said that Kem Sokha has endured some of the toughest restrictions of anyone facing similar charges, calling two years in detention, “twenty four months too long.”
Last month, Chin Malin told RFA that treason charges against Kem Sokha will not be dropped unless his legal team produces “new and convincing evidence” to prove his innocence.
His statement came in response to a request by Kem Sokha’s lawyer Pheng Heng for the Phnom Penh Municipal Court to drop the charges against his client, in part because his extended pre-trial detention appears to have violated Cambodian law, and suggests that prosecutors lack solid evidence to prove him guilty.
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 had rejected any suggestion that Washington was interfering in Cambodian politics at the time of his arrest.
Kem Sokha has said that his statement in the video “was merely an educational speech on the appreciation of human rights and democracy,” and believes that his arrest and the dissolution of the CNRP were politically motivated.
In the nearly two years since his arrest, Western governments and rights groups have called the charges against him unsubstantiated and urged for his case to be dropped.
In May, at the conclusion of her seventh visit to the country, Rhona Smith, Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, called for the release of Kem Sokha from house arrest, though government spokesman Phay Siphan said his fate is a “matter for the courts.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.