UPDATED at 12:00 P.M. EST on 2018-4-6
Jailed opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Kem Sokha has called on court authorities to release him so that he can seek medical treatment abroad and restart negotiations with Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) ahead of a general election.
Kem Sokha was arrested last September on charges of collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the government, and the Supreme Court followed in November with a decision to dissolve the CNRP for its role in his alleged plot, stripping officials of their posts and banning many from politics for five years.
At the end of last month, Cambodia’s Appeals Court upheld Kem Sokha’s continued detention without bail, despite what the CNRP leader’s lawyers have said is his “rapidly worsening” health as a result of the unhygienic conditions of his jail cell in Tbong Khmum province’s remote Trapeang Phlong prison. They have also complained that guards prevent his family members from providing him with medicine.
On Wednesday, several members of Kem Sokha’s legal team met with the opposition chief and relayed a message from him to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court, urging authorities to “release him for proper health care and allow him to negotiate with Prime Minister Hun Sen” to put an end to Cambodia’s political crisis, adding that he plans to seek treatment overseas.
Kem Sokha also appealed to his supporters and those of former CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who is currently living in self-imposed exile to avoid convictions seen as politically motivated, to “maintain a united front” in the hopes of reinstating the banned opposition party.
His plea for release comes amid an ongoing government crackdown on the political opposition, NGOs and the media—actions widely seen as part of a bid by Hun Sen to ensure the CPP remains in power for another term following a ballot planned for July 29 that is widely expected to be neither free nor fair.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan dismissed Kem Sokha’s request as coming “too late,” adding that dialogue between the CPP and the CNRP was impossible because the opposition “made a big mistake.”
“Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy were charged with treason, so there is no way they can be excused,” he said.
Prey Sar Plea
The CPP’s refusal to entertain dialogue with the opposition came as 15 CNRP members and activists held in Prey Sar Prison appealed to the government to release them without condition ahead of the Khmer New Year, which begins on April 14, and restart negotiations between the ruling and opposition parties.
King Norodom Sihamoni traditionally grants pardons to prisoners ahead of the New Year, usually at the request of the government, although Hun Sen has said that politicians will no longer be freed this year.
The prisoners made the request Thursday through former CNRP lawmakers Ou Chanrath, Mao Monyvann and Kang Kimhak who visited 14 of them at Prey Sar for the first time since Hun Sen banned all opposition parliamentarians from doing so nearly a year ago.
The former lawmakers were refused a visit with the CNRP’s former media director Meach Sovannara, however.
“They have been waiting for so long for a pardon and release,” Ou Chanrath told RFA’s Khmer Service after meeting with the prisoners, adding that most of them are young activists and that “some of them have been locked up for three years already.”
“They wish to have a political solution in order to set them free … They appealed to the King and the prime minister to take pity and release them because they say they have been unjustly imprisoned.”
Meach Sovannara and the 14 other CNRP members are serving terms of up to 20 years on insurrection charges for clashing with police over the closure of a protest site in the capital in 2014.
Earlier this week, the Ministry of Interior’s General Department of Prisons issued a letter stating that Meach Sovannara was “grounded for breaking the internal regulations of the prison,” referring to accusations by Hun Sen that he was communicating with people outside of Prey Sar using a smart phone.
Prison authorities found no cellphone during a subsequent search of Meach Sovannara’s cell, but then said he was using a television to send messages.
Ou Chanrath said that since the search, guards are now “strictly controlling” the prison, with a particular focus on the activists.
“Now they have put cameras in every cell and prohibit them from meeting with their families,” he said.
Reported by Sarada Taing and Tin Zakariya for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
Correction: An earlier version of the story erroneously stated that Hem Socheat was among the lawyers who met with Kem Sokha on Wednesday.