KEM SOKHA of the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) has been charged with treason after being arrested at his house on Sunday night.
A representative of Phnom Penh Municipal Court said Kem Sokha had been charged with “colluding with foreigners” under Article 443 of Cambodia’s penal code, the court said in a statement.
“The act of secret collusion with foreigners is an act of treason,” it added.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has accused him of plotting with the United States to “harm” Cambodia, based on a video from 2013 in which Kem Sokha tells CNRP he had American support and advice on his political strategy to win power.
“Kem Sokha, head of Cambodia National Rescue Party, was arrested by police for committing [a] red-handed crime related to a secret plan and the activities of conspiracy between Kem Sokha and foreigners which causes chaos and affects the Kingdom of Cambodia,” read the official statement from the court as quoted by the Phnom Penh Post.
One of the opposition leader’s lawyers, Pheng Heng, said what appeared in the video clip was no crime.
“The legal procedure is wrong and the charge isn’t correct,” he said. “His words are educational in a workshop … What he talked about was elections in a multi-party democratic way.”
The arrest of Kem Sokha and growing pressure on independent media and rights groups have drawn condemnation from the US and other Western countries, which have raised questions over whether a general election next year can be fair.
The Cambodia Daily was forced to close by the government, publishing its last edition on Monday after being slapped with a US$6.3 million tax bill.
Some 15 radio stations that air programmes produced by the CNRP, Voice of America and Radio Free Asia were also ordered in August by Cambodian authorities to stop broadcasting.
But Hun Sen, one of Asia’s longest serving rulers, has won support from China, which has made him one of its closest regional allies and provided billions of dollars in infrastructure loans.
The election could represent Hun Sen’s greatest electoral challenge in more than three decades in power, but his opponents accuse him of trying to shut down all opposition in advance.
Lawyers met Kem Sokha on Monday for 20 minutes and said his health was fine. “I may lose freedom, but may freedom never die in Cambodia,” Kem Sokha was quoted as saying in a post on Twitter that was repeated by his daughter, Monovithya Kem.
#KemSokha 's message from prison: I may lose freedom, but may freedom never die in Cambodia.
— Kem Sokha (@kemsokhacnrp) September 4, 2017
The European Union has called for his immediate release, based on the fact that he is meant to have parliamentary immunity, as an elected lawmaker.
The US State Department expressed “grave concern” at his arrest on charges it said appeared to be politically motivated.
— UN Human Rights (@UNHumanRights) September 4, 2017
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said on Monday he was seriously concerned about the arrest and the evidence against the opposition leader.
“There isn’t true peace. There has always been a false democracy,” said CNRP deputy leader Mu Sochua on Monday. The world has to help save Cambodia, which has taken decades to recover from the Khmer Rouge genocide, she said.
Additional reporting by Reuters