Less than two weeks shy of the anniversary of the midnight house raid and arrest of then-Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha on charges of plotting to overthrow the government, the Cambodian Supreme Court rejected his bail plea on Wednesday.
Sokha, head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which the government dissolved in November, was arrested 3 September over a video recording of a years-old speech in which he is accused of admitting to conspiring with foreign countries to overthrow the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Sokha has denied the accusations against him – which have been internationally condemned as trumped-up charges – and has been held in pretrial detention since his arrest, with no visitors permitted except for immediate family and lawyers. Those close to him say his health has deteriorated while in prison: high blood pressure, shoulder pain and diabetes. He has repeatedly sought release on bail to receive medical treatment. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison.
“It’s a total mockery of justice and [is] plunging Cambodia further into the law of the jungle,” CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua told Southeast Asia Globe. She has been living in self-imposed exile since shortly after Sokha’s arrest, when she was tipped off that she too might be imprisoned. “A political solution is the only way he can be released,” she said, adding that local protest and international pressure will likely lead to his release. “Today, many people went to the court because a momentum is building up again.”
The Supreme Court decision to continue holding him comes after the release of prisoners held over charges widely believed to be politically motivated. Prominent activist and thorn in the government’s side Tep Vanny was released from Prey Sar Prison on 20 August after serving two years in prison over public protests, receiving a royal pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni at the request of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The following day, Radio Free Asia reporters Oun Chhin and Yeang Sothearin were released on bail after serving eight months on charges of espionage and production of pornography.
Some commentators anticipated that Sokha, too, might be released now that the National Election Committee has announced the official results of the July general election continuing the rule of Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose party won all 125 seats in the National Assembly in what has been internationally condemned as a sham election.
But Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, expects Sokha to be released in the near future.
“It’s sensible to expect that he will be released by the end of September. The new government will be up and running,” Kol told Southeast Asia Globe. “Any chance that he would be released on bail would be after the government already formed and takes their seats [in the National Assembly] and gets the government integrated with the Cabinet and so on. That would be the time for some kind of consideration of the possible release of him on bail – or if not, Kem Sokha will have to go through an extended period of pre-trial detention, which would go for another six months. In that case, the political tension will continue.”
But Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said Sokha was “probably the last person that PM Hun Sen will ever release.”
“The reason is Sokha and the dissolved CNRP are the clearest manifestation of Cambodia’s system of electoral democracy that Hun Sen has destroyed with his campaign of political repression and a sham election,” said Robertson.
Unless Sokha’s health problems in prison become dire, it’s likely he will be held in pre-trial detention for as long as the law allows before the government takes him to trial on the politically fabricated charges against him
But Robertson pointed out that Cambodia’s trade deal with the European Union – Cambodia’s second largest trade market – could lead to Sokha’s release as the EU evaluates its Everything But Arms initiative, which allows tariff-free trade under certain human rights provisions.
“The Cambodian government is rightly concerned that the EU will start the process to rescind the EBA because many in Brussels are angry about PM Hun Sen’s campaign to destroy the political opposition, crush civil society and trade unions that criticize him, and shut down the independent press,” said Robertson. “There is no doubt that Cambodia has flagrantly violated the human rights provisions of the EBA requiring that recipient nations respect 15 international human rights standards and the ILO’s core labor rights conventions.”
“Over the next few months, decision-makers in Brussels will be making the decision on whether to proceed with the EBA review, and so I expect there will be a number of high-profile political prisoners who are released with much fanfare,” he said. “But no one should be fooled that a release of a prisoner here or there is meaningful.”
While the justice ministry could not be reached for comment, government spokesman Phay Siphan said Sokha’s case would not be influenced by the formation of the government or international trade deals.
“It belongs to the court, it has nothing to do with politics,” he said. “The court is independent. They have their own motive and the law. They don’t make any judgment under someone’s pressure.”