Cambodian Political Commentator Kim Sok Released After Serving 18-Month Prison Term

Kim Sok was jailed for implying that the government had murdered popular pundit Kem Ley.

Kim Sok (C) is greeted by supporters in front of Prey Sar Prison, Aug. 17, 2018.

Cambodian political commentator Kim Sok was released from prison on Friday morning after serving an 18-month jail term for “defamation” and “incitement to cause social disorder,” and was quick to slam the country’s ruling party for using “tricks” to obtain a victory in last month’s general election.

Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service after being freed, Kim Sok suggested that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had done nothing to earn a landslide victory in the July 29 ballot—widely dismissed as unfree and unfair, following a ban of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November and the arrest of its president, Kem Sokha, two months earlier.

“I am disappointed with politicians who know only how to brag [without doing] anything,” he said.

“They used force, threats, and tricks to get all 125 parliamentary seats [in play] from the election. It’s unfortunate for Cambodia that it has a leader who doesn’t care about dignity and honor, and only boasts about himself.”

Kim Sok said he will be meeting with Buddhist monks and other organizers to collect funding that can be used to assist poor people in Cambodia’s remote provinces, who he said receive little support from the government, and also plans to work on “promoting rule of law, democracy and justice in the country,” which he believes has suffered under Hun Sen’s rule.

Kim Sok was jailed on Feb. 17, 2017 after Hun Sen accused him of implying that the CPP had orchestrated the July 2016 murder of popular political pundit Kem Ley, though he says that he had only been repeating what many Cambodians believe.

Kem Ley was shot dead in broad daylight on July 10, 2016, when he stopped in a convenience store beside a gas station in Phnom Penh. Though authorities charged a former soldier with the murder, many in Cambodia don’t believe the government’s story that Kem Ley was killed by the man over a debt.

Just days before he was gunned down, Kem Ley had discussed on an RFA Khmer Service call-in show a report by London-based Global Witness detailing the extent of the wealth of the family of Hun Sen.

Earlier this year, Hun Sen filed another defamation suit against Kim Sok for allegedly claiming that the government routinely sponsors the murder of its critics, and the Phnom Penh Municipal Court had questioned him about the new claims on Aug. 15.

The suit came amid a general crackdown orchestrated by Hun Sen on the country’s opposition, NGOs and the independent media, in what was widely seen as part of a bid to muzzle disapproval of his government’s policies and secure a win for the CPP ahead of the general election.

On Friday, Kim Sok denied that he had said the government was the mastermind of a system that eliminates its critics, but instead suggested a system was “allowed to exist” under the current government that led to their deaths and which protects their killers from being brought to justice.

“What I meant was that the government has been careless in being unable to find any of the killers,” he said.

“In that sense, I don’t understand why Prime Minister Hun Sen has brought this [new] case against me in court and is defending this bad system.”

Soeung Senkaruna, a spokesman for local rights group Adhoc, said that Kim Sok’s release “cannot be celebrated until the courts drop the new charge against him and charges against all political prisoners, so that a door can be opened for freedom of expression, respect for human rights, and the democratic process.”

He also applauded Kim Sok’s bravery for continuing to speak out after being freed “because he is more concerned about the nation, which is drifting towards a lack of rule of law, democracy and the protection of rights.”

UN weighs in

Kim Sok’s release came as the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) issued a statement Friday expressing concern over the environment around last month’s election.

In a briefing note, OHCHR spokesperson Ravina Shamdasani said that the dissolution of the CNRP had “left a significant proportion of the population without chosen representation, causing concern for their rights to political participation.”

Citizens were reportedly intimidated or paid to vote, she noted, while civil society organizations faced harassment in the run up to the ballot.

Shamdasani also highlighted restrictions placed on the freedom of expression of individual voters and political opponents who called for a boycott of the election, including through threats, fines and legal action.

OHCHR urged Cambodia’s government to refrain from using the courts in such cases, adding that individuals are entitled to abstain from voting in a non-compulsory election, under human rights law.

Following the announcement of the official results of the election on Aug. 15, the rights body advised Hun Sen to instead “create an environment for open and inclusive political debate that allows all voices in Cambodia to be heard.”

“We urge the government to release political opponents, journalists, human rights defenders and ordinary citizens who have been detained for exercising their human rights, in particular their right to freedom of expression. We also call on the government to lift the ban against opponents taking part in political activity, and protect and expand space for civil society.”

It warned that respect for human rights and a vibrant civil society that can debate controversial issues “are essential ingredients if the conflict of the past is to be avoided, and if development is to be peaceful and sustainable.”

The OHCHR is the latest group to express concerns over last month’s ballot, and joins a growing list of rights organizations and governments that have condemned Hun Sen for his crackdown.

On Thursday, the U.S. announced an expansion of visa bans on individuals seen as limiting democracy in the country, as part of a series of “concrete steps” aimed at pressuring Cambodia to “reverse course” that included a decision to withdraw funding for last month’s elections.

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.

Royal decree

Also on Friday, Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni issued a royal decree formally reappointing Hun Sen as prime minister, following a request from the CPP and Heng Samrin, the National Assembly’s most senior elected lawmaker.

Hun Sen wrote to the king, expressing gratitude for his appointment, which officially adds another five-year term to his 33 years in office.

The prime minister will now turn to forming a cabinet, and will be required to seek a vote of confidence from the National Assembly, or parliament, at its opening session on Sept. 5—a vote he will undoubtedly receive, given his party’s domination of the legislature.

The new government will be formed on Sept. 6, and the Council of Ministers will meet the following day.

Last month, ahead of the election, several senior members of the CNRP had written an open letter to Sihamoni, urging the king to intervene in the Supreme Court’s decision to dissolve their party and ban their members from taking part in the upcoming election.

The monarchy has come under considerable pressure from the CPP during Hun Sen’s rule, and the prime minister once threatened to change the country’s form of government to a republic if the king refused to sign a supplemental treaty administering Cambodia’s border with Vietnam.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.