Cambodia PM Hun Sen Vows to Keep Opposition Chief Kem Sokha Jailed, Despite Recent Leniency

He dismisses rumors that the head of the now-dissolved CNRP could be freed after a hearing this week.

Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha casts his ballot in local elections at a polling station in Phnom Penh, June 4, 2017.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday vowed to keep opposition chief Kem Sokha behind bars despite a recent spate of clemency for members of his now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and others held on politically motivated charges and convictions.

Speaking to a crowd of more than 10,000 factory workers in the capital Phnom Penh, Hun Sen said the charges of treason facing Kem Sokha are extremely serious, and that he would not stop until the opposition leader was punished for his crimes.

“This is a treason case, so in my capacity as the head of the government I will absolutely keep pressing the lawsuit [against him],” Hun Sen said.

Kem Sokha was arrested in September for plotting to overthrow the government and the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP two months later over its alleged role in the scheme, paving the way for Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to sweep an election last month that was widely dismissed as unfree and unfair without the participation of the main opposition party.

The opposition chief has been held for nearly a year in pre-trial detention in Tra Peang Thlong prison in remote Tboung Khmum province and was denied bail for the sixth time last week, despite concerns that he is suffering from medical complications.

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.

The U.S. recently 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.

On Tuesday, King Norodom Sihamoni granted a royal pardon at Hun Sen’s behest to 14 jailed CNRP activists who were serving long sentences for “insurrection” in connection with anti-government street protests in 2014 that turned into violent clashes with police and security forces.

Their release followed the freeing by royal decree earlier this month of Tep Vanny—a prominent land activist—and three other campaigners convicted for their roles in a protest over a land grab, as well as the granting of bail to two former RFA reporters who are facing charges of “espionage.”

Social commentator Kim Sok was also freed in August after completing an 18-month sentence for defamation related to his suggestion that the CPP orchestrated the July 2016 murder of popular political pundit Kem Ley, although he still faces another defamation charge following a complaint filed by Hun Sen in January.

Amid speculation that Kem Sokha could be freed after a pre-trial detention hearing at his prison set for Thursday, CNRP supporters have said they plan to travel to Tboung Khmum to welcome him on his release.

But Hun Sen on Wednesday called Kem Sokha’s supporters “crazed over rumors” and urged authorities to “prevent them from going,” while also warning that those who do could be “handcuffed and thrown into Tra Peang Thlong prison.”

Despite the threats, one of Kem Sokha’s lawyers, Meng Sopheary, expressed hope that her client will be set free following his hearing.

“In the spirit of national reconciliation and unity, I hope that Samdech [honorific] Hun Sen will intervene to have Kem Sokha released from the prison so that he can enjoy his freedom,” she told RFA’s Khmer Service.

Threat of rearrest

Also on Wednesday, Hun Sen warned Kim Sok that he would be rearrested and thrown back into prison if he fails to pay hefty fines both to him and to the government as part of the sentence he was handed for defamation in August 2017, and demanded that the social commentator stop criticizing how he runs the country. The court ordered him to pay 800 million riels (U.S. $200,000) to Hun Sen and 8 million riels (U.S. $2,000) to the state.

“Lawyers of the ruling CPP must continue to demand this fine payment,” Hun Sen said.

“Don’t be so insolent [Kim Sok], the jail is waiting for you. Don’t say I use my mouth to make up my own laws. What I say is based on the rule of law.”

The prime minister added that if Kim Sok continues to “talk down to me … I will take you back to jail.”

Immediately after his release, Kim Sok criticized July’s election as being unfree and unfair.

He also questioned the National Election Committee’s (NEC) claim that more than 80 percent of voters had cast ballots and suggested the number was actually less than 40 percent, amid a call by the CNRP to boycott the vote in protest of its dissolution by the Supreme Court.

Kim Sok on Wednesday told RFA that he has no money, only a “kind heart for the nation,” and suggested that Hun Sen instead order the CPP-controlled parliament to adopt a new law to “take my heart away.”

“I have no plan to raise this money to make Hun Sen feel good, as paying the fine for my unjust case would be equivalent to encouraging the abuser of power to continue to violate the law,” he said.

“If I had the money, I would use it to help poor elderly people and orphans instead.”

Kim Sok said he believes Hun Sen’s plan is “to test me” following his release to see whether he will continue to criticize his governance.

“I won’t change my plan and my goal is to promote the spirit of democracy,” he said.

Am Sam Ath, the head of investigations for local rights group Licadho, told RFA that threat of Kim Sok being returned to jail is real, despite provisions in Cambodia’s law that protect his right to criticize the government.

“Cambodia’s Constitution and other laws protect freedom of expression, but the implementation and the interpretation of the laws is not clear, meaning that political analysts are subject to accusations of crimes such as ‘incitement,’ ‘defamation,’ and ‘insulting a public official,’” he said.

Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum and Vanrith Chrea. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.