Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has implicitly admitted to controlling the country’s courts by saying that Kem Sokha, the head of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), will not be freed from house arrest within the first two months of 2019, the party’s former president said Friday.
Early on Friday, Sam Rainsy, the former chief of the CNRP who is living in self-imposed exile in France to avoid a string of convictions widely seen as politically motivated, posted a message to his Facebook account challenging Hun Sen to a bet that Kem Sokha would be freed between Dec. 29 and March 3, 2019.
Dec. 29 marks the 20-year anniversary of Hun Sen’s “Win Win Policy” taking credit for the ending in 1998 of a long-running civil war.
Sam Rainsy proposed that if Kem Sokha is freed within the time period, Hun Sen should step down from power, but said that if the CNRP’s current president remains under detention, he would willingly surrender himself to Cambodian authorities and accept the terms of his conviction.
“I am only asking [Hun Sen] to step down, but if I lose, I will walk into jail and be detained with Kem Sokha,” he wrote.
Kem Sokha is being held under house arrest after being released from prison on Sept. 10, 2018—a year after he was detained for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.
The release of the 65-year-old opposition leader from pre-trial detention carries the conditions that he must stay within a block radius of his home, cannot meet with CNRP officials or foreigners, and cannot speak at or host any rallies or political activities.
He still faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of treason.
In a report published Friday, pro-government media outlet Fresh News quoted Hun Sen as saying he had “agreed to bet with Sam Rainsy,” adding that if Kem Sokha is not freed within the proposed timeframe that Sam Rainsy “must acknowledge that he has lost the bet and surrender himself so that his can be immediately arrested.”
“The public can be witness to this bet,” the prime minister concluded.
In an interview later on Friday, Sam Rainsy told RFA’s Khmer Service that Hun Sen had “fallen into my trap” and revealed himself to be a “dictator who is using the court as a political tool.”
“It is beyond belief that Hun Sen said he would not release Kem Sokha, and that I should ‘wait until pigs fly,’” Sam Rainsy said.
“Hun Sen always claims he respects the decisions of the judiciary, but as he is an individual—even though he is the prime minister—how can he make a decision on behalf of the court?” he asked.
“When Hun Sen dared to bet with me [over Kem Sokha], he lost. [By doing so] he has acknowledged that he is the court.”
Sam Rainsy stepped down as head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in February last year to prevent a state-ordered dissolution of the party.
But the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP anyway in November, saying the party had played a role in the alleged plot by Kem Sokha to overthrow the government, and opposition candidates were banned from taking part in the country’s July 29, 2018 general election, which Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) won handily in the absence of a viable political opposition.
The bet between Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen played out a day after Rhona Smith, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, wrapped up an 11-day fact-finding mission.
Smith, who was not permitted to meet Kem Sokha, called for “the swift conclusion of the investigation into his case to ensure his right to a fair trial within a reasonable time or for the charges to be dropped,” her post-visit report said.
“I call on the Ministry of Justice and judicial institutions to be more transparent in relation to their operations, to take more steps to combat corruption and to strengthen judicial independence and impartiality,” the U.N. human rights office quoted Smith as saying.
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.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.