Are Cambodian political prisoners being released to placate the West? | Asia | An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 17.09.2018

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Are Cambodian political prisoners being released to placate the West?

Many Cambodian political prisoners have been released recently as the EU considers a resolution condemning the country's slide into authoritarianism. DW spoke with an opposition politician about his incarceration.

Last week, Cambodia's main opposition leader, Kem Sokha, was released from prison after serving nearly a year on treason charges. Sokha is head of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved last year. He was jailed in September 2017 and was considered the country's most prominent political prisoner.

Sokha is one of 20 political prisoners to have been released from jail since controversial elections in July extended the rule of Hun Sen, Cambodia's strongman prime minister. Hun Sen has led Cambodia since 1985, and in recent years he has purged the country of political opposition.

Read more: Opposition leader Kem Sokha arrested for treason in Cambodia

The CNRP's exiled former leader, Sam Rainsy, told DW before the election that Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) cracked down on the CNRP after it became clear that the opposition party had become a political threat.

Kambodscha Um Sam An Oppositionspolitiker

Um Sam An, a member of the CNRP opposition party, was jailed in October 2016

"Instead of facing an independent judiciary in a democratic Cambodia, he opted to remove the façade of the system he established and reveal his true colors of a ruthless tyrant," Rainsy said in July.

After being released on bail following a royal pardon, Kem Sokha is now under house arrest in Phnom Penh. He is reportedly forbidden to speak with foreign media or meet with CNRP officials.

The US and the EU have both urged the Cambodian government to drop all charges against Sokha.  On September 13, the European Parliament approved a resolution condemning the crackdown on CNRP officials and called on the European Commission to consider sanctions against Cambodia.

Read more: EU cuts off funds for Cambodia election after opposition party dissolved

The resolution said the decision to dissolve the CNRP was a step toward "the creation of an authoritarian state" and that "the political structure of Cambodia can no longer be considered a democracy."

Cambodia enjoys trade preferences with the EU under the so-called "Everything But Arms" agreement, which gives Cambodia duty free access to most goods exported by the EU.

DW spoke with Kem Sokha's colleague, former CNRP parliamentarian Um Sam An, who last month was released from jail himself after having been incarcerated since October 2016 for criticizing Hun Sen's government on a border demarcation issue.

DW: Why have you and your colleagues been released?

Um Sam An: The ruling party was pressured by the international community. Soon Prime Minister Hun Sen will attend a UN assembly in New York and the EU is set to adopt a resolution on the situation in Cambodia. The prime minister wants to stay in power and keep his trade preferences with the EU, so he had to release the political prisoners.

Kambodscha Politiker Kem Sokha

Kem Sokha, CNRP leader, is currently living under house arrest

Will this improve things for Cambodia?

The new government isn't recognized by most Western countries. Only communist countries and dictatorships support this government. But Hun Sen wants legitimacy. So he releases prisoners and goes out to lobby. In Cambodia most people aren't satisfied with the election results because the main opposition wasn't allowed to join.

Kem Sokha is under house arrest while the trial against him continues. Do you expect the charges against him to be dropped?

I hope so. Otherwise the international community will put more pressure on Cambodia. I tried to meet Kem Sokha this week, but his bodyguard told me he doesn't want to meet with former CNRP leaders. If he does, the court will bring him back to prison. Right now he only talks with his family and his lawyer.

Read more: Is Cambodia an autocratic state now?

What should happen next to improve the political situation in Cambodia?

Cambodia still has political prisoners. The next step is to have them released as well. And I think they will negotiate to have the CNRP come back. Last year 118 CNRP members were banned from politics. I think they will lift that ban and then reinstate the CNRP, maybe under a different name. We also need to have a senate election and they should hold a snap parliamentary election before the mandate ends, maybe by next year.

You were arrested because you spoke out about a controversial border issue. Do you now feel free to express your opinion?

Freedom of expression in Cambodia is limited. We can talk about politics, but we will be arrested if we criticize too much.

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