Cambodia opposition leader Kem Sokha loses Supreme Court appeal for release
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Cambodia opposition leader Kem Sokha loses Supreme Court appeal for release

CAMBODIAN Supreme Court rejected an appeal to release opposition leader Kem Sokha on Tuesday, saying his continued detention on charges of treason was needed so the court can “guarantee public order” as the likely dissolution of his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) nears.

Kem Sokha was arrested in a Sept 3 midnight raid on his home in Phnom Penh. Since then, he’s been under 24-hour surveillance while he awaits trial. If convicted, he faces up to 30 years in prison.

His arrest comes amid a crackdown on critics of authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of next year’s general elections.

Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party has intensified a crackdown against political opponents, independent media and human rights groups in recent months, forcing the closure of several news outlets.

SEE ALSO: Hun Sen says it’s a done deal – Cambodia’s opposition will be shut down

Lawyers for the CNRP leader had asked the Supreme Court to rule that his detention was illegal and said that he should be granted parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

“The detention of Kem Sokha is to prevent new crimes and so that the court can guarantee public order,” Judge Khim Ponn said after nearly two hours of deliberations.

“The accused will continue to be detained.”

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Kem Sokha greets supporters during a campaign rally in Prey Veng province, Cambodia, on May 28, 2017. Source: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Sokha was barred from attending today’s hearing ostensibly because of “security concerns” voiced by prison department officials, the same reason he was unable to attend an initial hearing on Sept 26, Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin told reporters.

“It is not necessary [for him] to be present because it involves security problems and public order issues for him. So only his lawyers are enough,” he said yesterday, as reported by The Phnom Penh Post, adding that the situation would be different for a trial hearing.

The Supreme Court is due to rule on Nov 16 whether to dissolve the CNRP after the government last month filed a lawsuit asking to dissolve the party on grounds it was involved in a plot to topple the government.

SEE ALSO: Cambodia: Release Kem Sokha or face travel ban – US senator

If the opposition is dissolved, rights groups say that will render the 2018 elections undemocratic.

Sokha’s arrest has garnered the attention of the international community, with mounting pressure on Hun Sen to release the opposition leader before the cut-off for voter registration on Nov 9.

Last week, US Senator Ted Cruz called on the Cambodian government to release Sokha, accusing the Hun Sen administration of undermining “political liberalisation and credible elections” and endangering the future of US-Cambodia relations.

The evidence presented against Kem Sokha so far is a video recorded in 2013 in which he discusses a strategy to win power with the help of US advisers. Hun Sen has claimed this is proof of his rival getting help from the United States. The US Embassy in Phnom Penh has rejected any suggestion of interference in politics.

Additional reporting by Reuters