Cambodia’s government has accused Western countries of political interference and arrogance after foreign diplomats expressed concern over a 27-year prison sentence handed to popular opposition leader Kem Sokha after his conviction for treason in what was described as a highly politicised trial.
Kem Sokha, the 69-year-old co-founder of the country’s now-banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was found guilty of hatching a secret plan in collusion with foreign entities to topple the country’s Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia with an iron fist for almost 40 years.
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Kem Sokha had denied the charges.
The United Nations, European Union, Canada, France, Australia and the United Kingdom all expressed concerns after the sentencing on Friday, while analysts view the treatment of Kem Sokha as symptomatic of Cambodia’s stifled democracy ahead of elections in July that look set to return Hun Sen’s ruling party to another five years in power owing to repression of the political opposition.
The US described Friday’s guilty verdict and sentence as a “miscarriage of justice” based on a “fabricated conspiracy” and “politically-motivated charges”.
#Cambodia: UN Human Rights Chief @volker_turk dismayed by 27 year sentence against opposition figure Kem Sokha, and urges his release from confinement. Calls on govt to ensure environment for free elections and to protect civil/political rights of all: https://t.co/YntlAwmiL9
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) March 3, 2023
“Kem Sokha’s conviction is part of a larger pattern of threats, harassment, and other unacceptable actions by Cambodian authorities to target political opposition leaders, media, and civil society,” US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said in a statement.
“These actions impede any chance for a free, transparent, and fair electoral process,” Price said.
We are deeply troubled by the conviction of political leader Kem Sokha. His protracted trial, built on a fabricated conspiracy, was unjust. Multi-party democracy would further the Cambodian people's aspirations for a prosperous and inclusive country. https://t.co/DyA1VVPZAS
— Ned Price (@StateDeptSpox) March 3, 2023
Hitting back in a statement on Friday, Cambodia’s foreign ministry said the condemnation was “prejudiced and hypocritical” and denied there were political motives at play.
The ministry accused foreign envoys of a political narrative potentially based on “delusion or arrogance” and said diplomats had a duty not to meddle in Cambodia’s internal affairs.
Kem Sokha was immediately placed under house arrest on Friday and barred from speaking to people outside his family. His daughter Kem Monovithya said on Saturday that her parents’ internet and phone services had been cut off and that surveillance cameras were being installed in front of Kem Sokha’s house in the capital, Phnom Penh.
“He is calm and committed to finding justice and hoping to reverse this course,” Monovithya told the Agence France-Presse news agency.
She also called on foreign governments to take concrete action against the Cambodian government.
“I call on the international community to respond with actions, lip service has not worked,” she said.
Kem Sokha has one month to launch an appeal against his sentence.
Human rights groups say Hun Sen – among the world’s longest ruling leaders of a country – has systematically demolished Cambodia’s political opposition, eroded democratic freedoms guaranteed by the constitution, and has used the country’s courts to stifle his opponents and critics.
Two months after Kem Sokha’s arrest in 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved his CNRP, once considered the sole viable political opposition to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has effectively held power since 1979.
The removal of the CNRP from the country’s political life paved the way for Hun Sen’s ruling party to win all 125 parliamentary seats in the 2018 national election, which turned Cambodia into a one-party state for the first time since multi-party democracy was restored to the country in the early 1990s after decades of civil war.
Many opposition supporters, activists and politicians have fled the country since 2017 and more than 150 have been convicted of treason and other crimes in mass trials.
Hun Sen most recently ordered the closure of one of the country’s few remaining local independent media outlets after he took umbrage at a report involving his son and heir apparent.
The foreign ministry in its statement said that “Cambodia remains steadfast in holding July’s general elections in a free, fair, just and transparent manner”.