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Cambodia: Is Kem Sokha sentence a step toward tyranny?

March 3, 2023

A Cambodian court has convicted the leader of the country's only viable opposition party of treason. The move comes just four months before a general election and a long-planned dynastic handover of power.

Former President of Cambodia National Rescue Party, Kem Sokha, waves from his car in front of his house in Phnom Penh
The ruling against Kem Sokha comes as the country prepares for a general electionImage: Heng Sinith/AP Photo/picture alliance

Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha was sentenced to 27 years of house arrest by the Phnom Penh Municipal Court on Friday on charges of conspiring with foreign powers to incite a "color revolution" in the country. 

The 69-year-old was arrested for alleged treason in September 2017, just months before his CNRP, the country's only viable opposition party, was forcibly dissolved by the authorities on the accusations of plotting a US-backed coup.

During the three-year trial, prosecutors appeared to rely primarily on a short two-minute extract of a speech Kem gave in Australia in 2013 in which he thanked the US for supporting him since the 1990s.

Kem asserts that he was merely talking about the financial backing the US and other foreign lenders gave to the human rights organizations he helped to found.

"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, in a statement.

The move against Kem "isn't just about destroying his political party, but about squashing any hope that there can be a genuine general election in July."

Kem Sokha greets his supporters at a 2017 Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) rally
Kem Sokha was arrested in 2017 and his Cambodia National Rescue Party, the country's only viable opposition party, was forcibly dissolvedImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/H. Sinith

End of the party

Following the CNRP's dissolution in 2017, Prime Minister Hun Sen's long-ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) went on to construct a de facto one-party state after winning all National Assembly seats at the 2018 general election. Most opposition figures have either fled the country or have been imprisoned.

Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985, plans to soon hand over power to his eldest son and current military chief Hun Manet, who was nominated as his successor by the ruling CPP in late 2021.

Analysts had expected courts to convict Kem. In addition being banned from politics and voting indefinitely, the opposition leader will not be able to meet anyone except his family members. His lawyer, Ang Udom, said he will appeal the verdict.

Crushing the opposition

"This verdict is an unmistakable warning to opposition groups months before national elections," Amnesty International's deputy regional director, Ming Yu Hah, said in a statement.

A number of officials from the Candlelight Party — now the country's largest opposition group — have been hit with costly fines by the courts for allegedly defaming the ruling CPP.

Does Cambodia have a viable opposition?

Other opposition politicians have quit their parties or defected to the ruling CPP to avoid legal prosecution from the authorities.

In early February, Hun Sen ordered the authorities to close down Voice of Democracy, one of the last independent news outlets, over claims it had defamed his son and de facto military leader Hun Manet.

In recent days, Hun Sen has claimed that new elements in the country are plotting a foreign-backed "color revolution" — a spurious charge. This week he alleged that the CIA had sent spies to foment trouble in Phnom Penh.

Western responses

"The United States is deeply troubled by the conviction of respected political leader Kem Sokha," the outgoing US Ambassador to Phnom Penh, W. Patrick Murphy, said in a statement on Friday morning.

"The multi-year process to silence Kem Sokha based on a fabricated conspiracy is a miscarriage of justice," he added. 

The UK Embassy in Cambodia tweeted that "the handling and outcome of this case is deeply concerning and will further damage Cambodia's image. As we consider the implications, my thoughts are with Kem Sokha's family at this distressing time."

At the time of publication, neither the European Union nor individual European embassies in Phnom Penh had issued statements on the verdict.

Kem Sokha pictured sitting in his house
The court has stripped Kem Sokha of his right to vote and barred him from running for political officeImage: picture-alliance/ANN/The Phon Penh Post

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Phnom Penh late last month and met with Kem Sokha during his visit.

"President Steinmeier told me that Germany, the EU, as well as the international community have been monitoring my court case as well as observing how much political freedom I have," Kem wrote on Facebook following their meeting.

Many pundits believe that Kem could possibly be given a royal pardon after the upcoming general election in July, with the express condition that he retires from all political activity.

Such a pardon would need to be requested by Hun Sen, who has a long history of providing amnesty to his opponents once they have been jailed or exiled.

Edited by: Keith Walker