A lawyer for arrested Cambodian opposition chief Kem Sokha on Wednesday rejected government claims this week that his transfer by authorities from prison to house arrest last year while waiting to be tried was a humanitarian gesture representing “release.”
Speaking to RFA’s Khmer Service on Wednesday, Kem Sokha’s lawyer Men Sopheary called the government’s statement “beyond belief,” adding that Cambodian judicial authorities have forbidden former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) president Kem Sokha from meeting anyone but his family and lawyers.
“I don’t see how he can live peacefully when he has lost almost all of his rights as a citizen, including the right to political activity,” Men Sopheary said. “Even his mother and other relatives feel intimidated when they visit him, because all their activities are closely watched.”
“He can’t even meet with his own children,” she added.
The Sept. 10 statement by Cambodia’s foreign ministry that Kem Sokha had been “released” last year to house arrest on humanitarian grounds came in response to a call this week by the U.S. State Department urging that the former CNRP leader be freed, with all charges against him dropped.
In a statement submitted this week to the 42nd session of the U.N. Human Rights Council, Rhona Smith—U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia—voiced regret that Cambodian authorities have not allowed her to meet with Kem Sokha, noting that the former CNRP chief “remains detained at his home under restrictive judicial supervision.”
Kem Sokha has now been held for more than the maximum 180 days allowed for pretrial detention under Cambodian law, Smith said, adding, “The Special Rapporteur reiterates her call for the release of Mr. Sokha from detention and for the investigation to be swiftly concluded or for the charges to be dropped.”
Addressing the Human Rights Council meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, on Sept. 10, Cambodian government delegate Ney Samol accused the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of prioritizing the views of “particular groups over others” when considering the country’s rights record.
In Cambodia, the issues of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law should be evaluated with a “holistic approach” instead of with a focus on individual cases, he said.
Charged with treason
Cambodian authorities arrested Kem Sokha in September 2017 and charged him with treason, and Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and banned 118 of its elected officials from politics two months later for the party’s alleged role in a plot to overthrow the government.
The moves were part of a wider crackdown on the political opposition, NGOs, and the independent media that paved the way for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to win all 125 seats in parliament in the country’s July 2018 general election, making Cambodia effectively a one-party state.
After spending a year in pre-trial detention, Kem Sokha was released under the condition that he stay within a block radius of his home, not meet with CNRP officials or foreigners, and not host rallies or political activities.
He faces up to 30 years in prison if convicted of treason, but no date has been set for his trial.
Attacked by police
Meanwhile, CNRP party members in Cambodia continue to report harassment by authorities, with one activist requesting help from the Cambodia-based rights group Adhoc to file a suit against police officers he said had assaulted him.
Speaking to RFA, Seng Sophan—a CNRP member in the Samrong district of northwestern Cambodia’s Oddor Meanchey province—said that two police officers had approached him in a café and ordered him not to speak about plans by acting CNRP president Sam Rainsy to return from exile to Cambodia.
When he refused, he said, the officers pushed him into a table and onto the ground.
“I have witnesses to the incident,” Seng Sophan said, adding that the assault had been aimed at discouraging him and other Cambodians from standing up for their views.
Oddor Meanchey deputy police chief Loek Sokha meanwhile denied that Seng Sophan had been attacked, adding, “No one bothered him. He was simply drunk and causing problems.”
An assault of the kind reported would represent a violation of the Cambodian constitution’s guarantees of the right to freedom of speech, Adhoc provincial coordinator Srey Naren said, promising to investigate the case and collect enough evidence to bring it to court.
Since the start of 2019, authorities have summoned over 147 CNRP members and supporters around the country for questioning, international human rights monitoring group Human Rights Watch noted in a statement in August, calling on concerned governments to demand “the immediate and unconditional release of former opposition members and activists arbitrarily detained.”
Acting CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, who has shepherded the party in exile, has meanwhile vowed to return to Cambodia on Nov. 9 with other high-ranking party officials to oust Hun Sen and restore democracy to Cambodia, despite threats by Hun Sen to imprison him.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.