More than 150 members of parliament from around the world sent an open letter to Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen Monday, calling on his government to immediately and unconditionally release jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha and take steps to ensure free and fair elections next year.
The letter, signed by 158 lawmakers representing 23 countries on six continents, came as Kem Sokha's lawyer said the head of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was unlikely to seek release from pre-trial detention because he has "no faith" in the country's court system.
Kem Sokha was arrested on Sept. 3 and faces charges of collaborating with the U.S. to overthrow the government. Cambodia's Supreme Court on Nov. 16 ruled that CNRP be dissolved for its part in the alleged plot, essentially eliminating Hun Sen's competition ahead of a general election scheduled for July 2018.
In Monday's letter, Malaysian MP Charles Santiago, Chairperson of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), called Kem Sokha's detention "clearly motivated," adding that the government "has presented no credible evidence of the absurd charges levied against him."
"His arrest came in the midst of a heavy-handed crackdown on free media and civil society, and, combined with the subsequent dissolution of his party, represents nothing more than an attempt by the ruling party to eliminate all opposition before next year's national elections," Santiago said.
"We are asking the Cambodian government to take steps to reverse course by unconditionally releasing Kem Sokha and allowing him and his party to participate freely in politics. Elections in 2018 will be illegitimate unless such actions are urgently undertaken."
Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) government has faced widespread condemnation in recent months over its actions against the CNRP, as well as for orchestrating the closure of independent media outlets and cracking down on nongovernmental organizations, ahead of next year's ballot.
The letter also called on Cambodia's government to reverse the decision to dissolve the CNRP, reinstate all of the party's elected leaders to their positions, and repeal amendments passed earlier this year by the country's CPP-dominated parliament that it said "laid the groundwork" for the opposition's dissolution.
"Kem Sokha's arrest and detention took place in a context of increasing repression of the opposition, which has been enabled by the amendment of laws to fit the ruling party's political agenda," said Congressman Tom Villarin of the Philippines, also a signatory to the letter.
"In order for us to believe that future elections can happen in a genuine, participatory, and inclusive manner, this major roadblock needs to be addressed."
Villarin urged Cambodia's government to "show a commitment" to working with its international partners to address "what we see as serious breaches of international law and Cambodia's own constitution."
"The government's onslaught against the opposition, independent media, civil society, and the rule of law itself must stop, and we need to see proof of that," he said.
The parliamentarians pledged to help Cambodia achieve a "genuine, multi-party democracy" in the aftermath of years of war during the Khmer Rouge era of the 1990s, but said they could only do so "if basic democratic norms and principles are restored."
Santiago went further to warn Hun Sen that if he ignored the recommendations of the international community, he would "risk becoming a pariah on the global stage."
'No faith' in courts
Monday's letter came as Kem Sokha's lawyer, Hem Socheat, said the opposition leader was unlikely to file a request for a provisional release from pre-trial detention because he has "no faith" in the independence of the country's courts.
"We have exhausted the appeal channels against the arrest of Kem Sokha after multiple courts at different levels consistently ruled against us," he told RFA's Khmer Service.
"The next move would be to file an application for his provisional release. However, we are reluctant to file it at this time as we have no faith in the courts."
Hem Socheat said Kem Sokha was scheduled to answer questions to his case's investigating judge at a court hearing on Dec. 14, but suggested it would be similar to an earlier session at the court on Nov. 24, when all questions concerned the charges of treason.
The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power at the ballot box with the help of U.S. experts--though the U.S. embassy has rejected any suggestion that Washington is interfering in Cambodian politics.
Hem Socheat said that at the Nov. 24 hearing, Kem Sokha testified that his statement in the video "was merely an educational speech on the appreciation of human rights and democracy," and said the opposition leader "treats his case and the dissolution of the CNRP as politically motivated."
"Kem Sokha still considers himself a legitimately-elected lawmaker and leader of the CNRP," he said.
"He still believes in the wisdom and will of the CNRP's elected officials, members and supporters, in perusing a positive change [for Cambodia] through a free and fair election."
Also on Monday, a judge with the Phnom Penh Municipal Court denied a request for bail by two former RFA reporters arrested last month on charges of "espionage," saying the pair were likely to "destroy evidence and collude with witnesses" ahead of their trial, according to their lawyer, Keo Vanny.
Former RFA Khmer Service reporters Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were taken into custody on Nov. 14 by police who initially said they were detained for running an unlicensed karaoke studio. They were later accused of setting up a studio for RFA and formally charged with "illegally collecting information for a foreign source," which carries a jail sentence of up to 15 years.
RFA closed down its operations in Cambodia in September amid a crackdown on the media, and the two reporters--who are being held in pre-trial detention in Prey Sar Prison--have denied the charges against them. RFA has confirmed that it no longer employs the pair.
"Such a ruling is illegal and unacceptable," Keo Vanny said Monday, adding that "my clients have not committed the crimes as charged."
"There is no evidence for them to destroy. There is no flight risk, as both of them have physical addresses," he said.
"It is not necessary for the court to continue their detention. The charged persons should be released pending trial."
In November, dozens of journalists signed an open letter calling on court officials to drop their case against Uon Chhin and Yeang Sothearin, saying the charges are having a chilling effect on the media and restricting press freedom.
Both the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) also called for the release of the journalists in statements last month.
RSF ranked Cambodia 132nd out of 180 countries in its 2017 World Press Freedom Index, and warned that the Southeast Asian nation is "liable to fall" in next year's index.
Reported by RFA's Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
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