Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday lashed out at critics who claimed opposition chief Kem Sokha was released on bail as a result of international pressure on his regime, saying the head of the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was freed due to concerns about his health.
Kem Sokha was arrested in September last year on treason charges widely seen as politically motivated and the Supreme Court dissolved his CNRP two months later for its part in an alleged plot to topple the government, banning its candidates from taking part in a July 29 general election that Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) steamrolled without any viable opponent.
The political crackdown drew condemnation from western governments who lamented Cambodia’s reversals on democracy, dismissed July’s ballot as unfree and unfair, and had demanded Kem Sokha’s release and a reinstatement of the CNRP.
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.
Despite being denied bail six times, Kem Sokha was finally granted a release by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court from pre-trial detention on Sept. 10, under 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.
On Wednesday, Hun Sen downplayed the release, noting that Kem Sokha is still facing treason charges.
“There was a concern that he might die in jail and then there would be an issue for the government,” he said.
He also defended the conditions of virtual house arrest, saying the judges in Kem Sokha’s case have the right to limit his freedom.
“In our country, we don’t have a law that allows for house arrest, so the judge can create a limited zone for the person to stay within,” he said.
“We must prepare a draft law that allows judges to put people under house arrest,” he added, warning that if Kem Sokha breaches the court’s order, he could be forcibly relocated.
Hun Sen’s comments came after Interior Minister Sar Kheng told CPP supporters in Prey Veng province over the weekend about his frustration over the difficulty in justifying Kem Sokha’s virtual house arrest through a legal system that does not allow for such a condition of release.
According to a video of the speech posted to Sar Kheng’s Facebook page, the minister said he ordered a letter be prepared for Kem Sokha to sign which said that the opposition chief was “worried about his personal safety and security” and requested the national police to provide him with protection.
“First we asked him to write that he needed security protection at his house,” the minister said.
“But he asked that the term ‘house’ be removed. We agreed. By means of that letter, we could not be accused of placing him under house arrest.”
The minister’s remarks stood in stark contradiction to what Hun Sen has said about Kem Sokha’s case, which is that his bail was granted “at the discretion of the courts,” and that his government “had no say in it.”
The video of Sar Kheng’s comments was removed from his Facebook page a few hours after it was posted, with no explanation given for its retraction.
The comments were seen to confirm what many in Cambodia believe to be true—that Hun Sen’s government enjoys near total influence over the country’s courts.
On Wednesday, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court issued a statement defending its conditions for Kem Sokha’s bail, but denying that creating a zone for him to stay within is a form of house arrest.
Kem Sokha’s movement was limited in the interest of protecting his security and for the sake of his health, it said.
“Kem Sokha has been placed under court supervision and he is not under house arrest,” the statement said.
“The charged person has enough freedom to leave his house within a zone drawn up by an investigative judge. He can meet anyone who is not banned by the court.”
Legal expert Heang Rithy told RFA’s Khmer Service that placing Kem Sokha under virtual house arrest is against the law in Cambodia, adding that even if Hun Sen’s CPP-dominated National Assembly approves a draft law allowing for such a condition of release, it would not apply to the opposition chief because his bail has already been granted.
Hun Sen on Wednesday also dismissed suggestions that the United Nations might strip Cambodia of its seat, amid the restrictions he imposed on Cambodia’s democracy and an ongoing crackdown on the political opposition, NGOs and the independent media.
“Recently, people have spread rumors that Cambodia will be stripped of its U.N. seat—who dares to do that,” he said.
Hun Sen is scheduled to deliver a speech at the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 28 and plans to meet with supporters in the U.S. the following day.
The Prime Minister’s comments came on the same day as a group of local rights groups Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), Adhoc, and the Solidarity Center (SC) released its second annual report of the Cambodia Fundamental Freedoms Monitor, which detailed the state of the freedoms of association, expression, and assembly in the country from April 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018.
For the period of investigation, which included much of the lead up to July’s general election, the groups found a “decrease in the public's ability to exercise fundamental freedoms,” noting that “voices deemed critical of government officials and policies were suppressed with increasing frequency and severity, at the national and local levels.”
Freedom of association was curtailed due to new amendments to the legal framework, an increase in surveillance and monitoring of association activities, and a surge in sanctions against political parties and NGOs, the report said, while freedom of expression also came under sustained pressure with new legal restrictions on speech, increased self-censorship, and the closure of many independent media outlets.
The report also noted that freedom of assembly continued to be suppressed due to a prevalence of arbitrary restrictions.
Adhoc spokesman Soeung Sen Karuna told RFA that NGOs “are concerned about the future of Cambodia” because the government continues to ignore their findings on the state of human rights in the country.
“We have observed the space for freedoms is getting smaller,” he said, adding that groups like his routinely face harassment from local authorities when trying to meet with people to educate them about their rights.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.