The former head of Cambodia’s opposition party, Kem Sokha, will be tried for treason, Prime Minister Hun Sen said Monday, despite the easing of restrictions on his house arrest last week that led some to believe his case could be dropped as part of a bid to avoid looming trade sanctions.
Last week, in a letter sent to the lawyer of Kem Sokha, the former president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), investigating judge Ky Rithy of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court said he had “decided to close the investigation” into the case, without providing further details, including if or when it will go to trial.
On Monday, however, Hun Sen made it clear that Kem Sokha’s two-year-old case is going to trial, despite rumors that he could be freed at the behest of King Norodom Sihamoni.
“This case will not only take a day or two, or a month or two—it will take a long time,” he said.
“Some people said the King can grant him a royal pardon, but how can the King grant a pardon when he hasn’t been tried and found guilty?”
Hun Sen said that the decision to close the investigation was made “so the case can be sent to trial,” but did not provide details on when the hearings might begin. Kem Sokha faces up to 30 years in jail if convicted.
Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 for plotting to topple the government and the Supreme Court banned the CNRP two months later for its role in the alleged scheme. Hun Sen’s crackdown on the opposition, as well as 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 election.
The Phnom Penh Municipal Court eased restrictions last week on the de facto house arrest of Kem Sokha, whose case the European Union has highlighted as an example of a clampdown on democratic rights in Cambodia that has led it to consider withdrawing the country’s status under the Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, which allows developing nations tariff-free access to the bloc’s markets.
The European Commission (EC) launched an investigation in February into Cambodia’s rights record to determine whether to withdraw the country’s EBA status, which Hun Sen has dismissed as a form of meddling in his country’s internal affairs.
In a confidential report issued on Nov. 12, which RFA obtained a copy of through official sources, the EU warned Cambodia’s government that it has not taken enough steps to prevent a loss of its special trade privileges, noting particularly "further deterioration" of civil, political, labor, social and cultural rights since the review process was launched nine months ago.
Under EU law, Cambodia’s government has one month to respond to the preliminary report, at which point the EC will finalize it and make a decision in February next year on whether or not to withdraw EBA status.
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service, political analyst Lao Mong Hay said that Hun Sen should refrain from commenting on Kem Sokha’s case, as it is a matter for the courts.
But he noted that if the court had properly applied the law, Kem Sokha would have been set free “a long time ago.”
“Kem Sokha’s fate lies with the prime minister,” he said.
“If [Hun Sen] is feeling generous he might ask the King to grant a pardon to Kem Sokha, but if he isn’t, things will remain as they are.”
Cambodia’s courts are widely believed to be controlled by Hun Sen’s government, which is seen to be behind the dissolution of the CNRP.
The acting president of the CNRP, Sam Rainsy, in August announced his intention to return to Cambodia from self-imposed exile on Nov. 9 to lead a restoration of democracy in the country through nonviolent protests, and since then, dozens of former party officials and activists have been arrested and jailed for voicing support for the plan, which Hun Sen has said is part of a “coup attempt.”
Hun Sen’s government had also militarized Cambodia’s border provinces and ordered the armed forces to attack any opposition gatherings held on the date of Sam Rainsy’s planned return, banned commercial airlines that serve the country from boarding the CNRP chief, and sought the cooperation of neighboring countries by issuing arrest warrants to ensure that the return is prevented.
Sam Rainsy was refused entry to Thailand, from where he planned to cross the border into Cambodia on amid an escort of thousands of Cambodian migrant worker supporters, and instead traveled to Malaysia and Indonesia, where he met with other party officials to plan his next steps.
On Thursday—two days after the EC sent its report to Cambodia—Hun Sen appeared to soften his stance, announcing that more than 70 CNRP activists would be released on bail “for the sake of national unity,” and urging those in hiding to return home.
RFA confirmed through CNRP officials on Friday that 75 of 88 activists had been set free as part of the release, which the government has said had “nothing to do with the EBA.”
However on Monday, the Kampong Cham Provincial Court issued a summons for CNRP activist Reorn Roth, who told RFA that police in Preah Andong commune’s Stung Trang district traveled to his house and asked his father to sign the papers, requiring him to appear for questioning on Nov. 21.
“I planned to return to my home on Tuesday, but once I learned about the summons, it made me reconsider,” said Reorn Roth, who is currently in hiding outside of the country.
“[Hun Sen’s] appeal [for amnesty] still hasn’t gone into effect, so I don’t know what to do. If they let me go home but restrict my [political] activities … I would rather stay abroad, because I have struggled for a long time to help restore democracy and the CNRP. I won’t return home, just to become a deaf and mute person.”
Am Sam Ath, an official with Cambodian rights group Licadho, told RFA that the courts should end their persecution of opposition activists so that they can return home, noting that some 200 people are in hiding because they are facing charges for “complicity to commit treason” with the leaders of the CNRP.
“They cannot return home because they fear being arrested, which means they have lost the right to be with their families as well,” he said.
Hun Sen recently threatened to re-arrest the more than 70 CNRP activists released on bail if his critics said he had freed them due to international pressure.
Sam Rainsy weighs in
Meanwhile, Sam Rainsy, who over the weekend returned to France, where he has lived since 2015 to avoid charges and convictions he says are politically motivated, told RFA on Monday that he considered his trip to Asia a success, despite not being able to repatriate to Cambodia.
“Malaysian and Indonesian leaders not only didn’t arrest us, as Hun Sen requested, but welcomed and honored us,” he said.
“In Malaysia we met the foreign minister and in Indonesia we met members of parliament, including the vice president of the ruling party. This confirms that they do not believe Hun Sen’s propaganda. They believe in our struggle for democracy. This is like a slap on Hun Sen’s face.”
Sam Rainsy praised CNRP activists in Cambodia for their loyalty, despite threats and intimidation from the government, and warned that Hun Sen’s recent gesture of amnesty “is the result of pressure from the EU that has imposed a deadline on him to improve things by December.”
“Hun Sen is being pressured to release all political prisoners from the CNRP and drop all charges against them, including Kem Sokha—that is why he is doing what he is doing,” he said.
“If the EU cancels the EBA, it will be like Hun Sen destroying the rice bowls of 800,000 garment workers. He needs to keep garment workers employed through abiding by the EU’s conditions.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.