Kem Sokha, Founder of Cambodia National Rescue Party and a prominent opposition figure in Cambodia, has been freed from house arrest of more than two years. He was charged with treason, after attempts by his colleagues to return to the country were thwarted.
Mr Sokha was arrested in 2017 and accused of plotting to overthrow the government of strongman Hun Sen, who has ruled since 1985. He was sent to a remote prison, then confined to his house and the surrounding block and prohibited from talking to the media.
He is also allowed to travel nationwide, Y Rin, a Phnom Penh municipal court spokesman, told AFP on Sunday.
The new court ruling, which cited health concerns, forbids the 66-year-old from leaving Cambodia or joining political activities.
Pheng Heng, a lawyer for Kem Sokha, confirmed that some restrictions were lifted but said the ban on politics was too broadly worded and unclear.
Kem Sokha, along with Sam Rainsy, is the co-founder of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was dissolved ahead of elections swept by Hun Sen last year.
A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson, said the move was “too little, too late”. In a statement released to the Guardian, he said: “Kem Sokha’s release from house detention is a last-minute attempt to deflect European anger at the shoddy way PM Hun Sen and Cambodia have dealt with human rights concerns.”
The decision comes as Kem Sokha’s political partner, Rainsy, is waylaid in Malaysia with other CNRP officials after attempting a highly publicised comeback on November 09, Cambodia’s independence day.
Rainsy, who has lived in France since 2015 to avoid jail for convictions he says are politically motivated, had promised a dramatic return.
But after being barred in Paris on Thursday from getting on a flight to Thailand, Rainsy boarded a plane a day later and arrived in Kuala Lumpur.
It is unclear how he will get back to the country and for now he plans to meet with Malaysian MPs this week. He did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Kem Sokha.
Dozens of activists have been rounded up in recent weeks in Cambodia, while Hun Sen has called on fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to arrest Rainsy in what the strongman has described as an attempted coup.
But Hun Sen is also under international pressure to ease restrictions on dissent as the European Union considers revoking a duty-free tariff scheme for Cambodia’s lucrative garment sector.
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights board member and former Philippines MP Teddy Baguilat called the court ruling misleading and an attempt to ward off sanction.
“This is just another cynical move by Hun Sen to try and hoodwink the international community,” he said.
Rights groups say Cambodia’s legal system is controlled by Hun Sen’s government. (Source: The Guardian)