PHNOM PENH – A court in Cambodia convicted opposition leader Kem Sokha of treason on Friday and sentenced him to 27 years of house arrest, the latest blow in a campaign by the government to silence its critics or drive them out of the country.
The ruling against the country’s most prominent opposition politician not in exile, widely condemned by rights groups and foreign governments, comes just four months ahead of a general election. Kem Sokha’s September 2017 arrest marked the beginning of a fierce campaign by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to use the courts — widely considered to be under its influence — in a crackdown on dissent. Since then, most other top government critics have fled Cambodia to escape what were generally seen as politically inspired prosecutions.
Kem Sokha’s Cambodia National Rescue Party was seen as an electoral threat to Prime Minister Hun Sen in 2017, and his arrest came about 10 months before the country’s last general election. The Supreme Court dissolved the party soon after and its members were expelled from Parliament.
JUDGE SAYS OPPOSITION LEADER PLOTTED "COLOR REVOLUTION"
The government charged that an old video of Kem Sokha speaking at a seminar about receiving advice from U.S. pro-democracy groups was proof of collusion with a foreign power to illegally take power.
Judge Koy Sao of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court said Kem Sokha, backed by foreign powers, had used human rights and politics as a guise to organize people to stage a “color revolution” aimed at toppling the legal government. The maximum sentence is 30 years.
The court said Kem Sokha is barred from all political activity, including voting, and not allowed to meet with anyone, Cambodian or foreign, except for family members. He may leave the house only with the court's permission.
His lawyer, Ang Udom, told reporters he will file an appeal within one month.
RIGHTS GROUPS, U.S., CONDEMN VERDICT
Rights organizations decried Friday's court ruling.
"It was obvious from the start that the charges against Kem Sokha were nothing but a politically motivated ploy by Prime Minister Hun Sen to sideline Cambodia’s major opposition leader and eliminate the country’s democratic system,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Sending Kem Sokha to prison isn’t just about destroying his political party, but about squashing any hope that there can be a genuine general election in July.”
The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, said in a statement that he was “dismayed” by the ruling. “It is deeply concerning that the Royal Government of Cambodia continues to suppress political opponents and independent media in the lead-up to elections in July,” Türk said.
The United States Embassy in Cambodia also said it was “deeply troubled” by the conviction. U.S. Ambassador Patrick Murphy, along with representatives of other Western nations, had attended Friday's hearing.
“The multi-year process to silence Kem Sokha, based on a fabricated conspiracy, is a miscarriage of justice,” said the U.S. statement, emailed to journalists.
CAMBODIAN OPPOSITION HAS FEW LEADERS LEFT
Hun Sen has been in power for 38 years and his party currently holds every seat in the legislature, even though the country formally is an electoral democracy. He has vowed to stay in office until 2028, and has endorsed one of his sons to succeed him.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party had been the only credible opponent of the Prime Minister, whose Cambodian People's Party swept all the seats in the National Assembly its rival was abolished. Rights groups and Western nations said that the election was neither free nor fair.
Crackdowns continued even after the 2018 polls, as more than 100 former members of the opposition, party and civil society activists were charged with "incitement to commit a felony” for nonviolent political activities.
Hun Sen’s 2023 election opponents have come under similar pressure. In October, Son Chhay, a deputy president of the Candlelight Party — the de facto successor to Kem Sokha's party — was fined the equivalent of $750,000 for remarks he made alleging unfairness and irregularities in the 2022 local elections.
Thach Setha, another of the party’s leaders, was arrested in January for allegedly issuing several bounced checks in 2019.
The Cambodia National Rescue Party's co-founder, Sam Rainsy, has been in self-imposed exile since 2015 to avoid prison for a defamation conviction along with a slew of other legal charges brought by the government. As in Kem Sokha’s case, the prosecution was widely seen as politically motivated.
Kem Sokha was released from prison on bail in September 2018, more than a year after he was arrested, and put under house arrest. In November 2019, he was freed from house arrest but still banned from political activity.
His trial started in January 2020, but was soon suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak and resumed in 2022.
Kem Sokha’s political career began in 1993 when Cambodia held an election organized by the United Nations after more than two decades of war and unrest, and he was elected to the National Assembly. He established the independent Cambodian Center for Human Rights in 2002.
Peck reported from Bangkok.