On 21 January 2022, as the trial of Kem Sokha, leader of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) resumed after a two year delay, Southeast Asian parliamentarians have reiterated their call for Cambodian authorities to immediately and unconditionally drop the treason charges against him.
“The arbitrary arrest and politically-motivated treason charges against Kem Sokha have no place in a normal and functioning democracy. This is just another example of how the rule of law has existed by name only under Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government. The arrest of Kem Sokha in 2017, and the subsequent dissolution of CNRP, was clearly aimed at eliminating any true political opposition for the 2018 elections, and beyond,” said Kasit Piromya, a Board Member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), and a former Thai Member of Parliament (MP).
Since Kem Sokha’s arrest, rights groups, including APHR, have expressed concern about his trial, including questionable or unfair judicial processes within Cambodia’s highly politicized courts, for charges that should have never been filed in the first place. The politically-compromised courts have allowed the case to drag on, citing the COVID-19 pandemic as the reason for the delays, as prosecutors fail to produce substantive evidence, fully aware that a prolonged trial could mean stopping Kem Sokha’s participation from any political activity, APHR said.
Speaking to media before his trial re-commenced, Kem Sokha expressed hope that the court will drop the charges in the name of “national reconciliation and national unity to develop our country”.
“Prime Minister Hun Sen’s administration should immediately drop the charges against Kem Sokha and all other CNRP leaders and activists, stop abuses against other elected CNRP officials and activists, including intimidation, violence, arbitrary arrest, and unjust imprisonment, and restore their civil and political rights,” said Piromya. “The international community, including ASEAN and the UN, must not allow Hun Sen to continue to trample over any semblance of democracy or space for fundamental freedoms in Cambodia with impunity. These continued rights abuses are especially shameful as Cambodia takes over the chairmanship of ASEAN for 2022.”
Without any positive progress in the cases of Kem Sokha and other CNRP leaders under arrest and/or facing judicial charges, and while space for political participation and other fundamental freedoms is closed, the upcoming Commune Elections in June 2022 and General Elections in 2023 will unfortunately result in another meaningless electoral exercise where the Cambodian people are denied a true democratic alternative to the decades-long rule of Hun Sen, APHR said.
Following significant gains in commune-level elections by the CNRP in 2017, Cambodian authorities detained CNRP President Kem Sokha on 3 September 2017 on trumped-up charges, and several CNRP members fled the country in exile fearing arrest. In November 2017, a Supreme Court ruling dissolved the CNRP for allegedly attempting to overthrow the government, and banned 118 of its members from politics for five years. In July 2018, Cambodia held widely discredited elections in which the CNRP was not allowed to compete.
After a year in Cambodia’s Tbong Khmum Correctional Center, Kem Sokha was released and placed under house arrest following strong international pressure. In November 2019, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court released an order relaxing his bail conditions allowing him to leave his house but still restricted him from traveling outside Cambodia and participating in any political activity.
His trial began on 15 January 2020, however, authorities suspended them in March 2020 citing COVID-19 related concerns.