FORTY-FIVE nations have called upon Cambodia at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva to hold a free and fair elections this year, as well as release jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha.
A statement on the human rights situation in Cambodia read by New Zealand on behalf of a group of 45 countries, including the United States, Germany, Australia and United Kingdom, said previous optimism had been “replaced by deep concern” regarding a decline in civil and political rights in Cambodia.
The statement urged Cambodia’s government to reinstate the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and all elected members.
Dozens of opposition lawmakers were banned when Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP last year in a ruling that was widely condemned by the international community, following the arrest of CNRP leader Kem Sokha last September.
Kem Sokha has been charged with treason, accused of colluding with Americans to overthrow the Cambodian government. He denies the charges and the US embassy in Phnom Penh has also denied the accusation.
Kem Sokha faces 30 years in prison if convicted. Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia for 33 years.
He is a former Khmer Rouge cadre who defected from the genocidal group and helped drive it from power in 1979, and is credited with helping Cambodia achieve economic growth, but has been criticised for his crackdown on critics and the media.
“We call on the Royal Government of Cambodia to take all measures necessary, before it is too late, to ensure that the 2018 elections are free, fair and credible,” the statement said.
“We are particularly concerned about the conditions under which opposition leader Kem Sokha is being detained following his arbitrary arrest: he is reportedly in isolation, without adequate access to health care, subjected to intrusive observation, and other conditions, such as constant light.”
“We call for the immediate release of all political prisoners, including Kem Sokha.”
The group raised concerns about a government crackdown on freedom of expression that has extended to independent media and non-governmental organisations.
“A series of legal and administrative measures are at the core of the Government’s crack-down on civic space in Cambodia. These include the Law on Associations and NGOs, the Trade Union Law, as well as recent amendments to the Constitution, the Criminal Code and Law on Political Parties,” said Rosanna Ocampo of FORUM-ASIA, a regional rights NGO, in a statement.
“Unless urgent steps are taken to alter this, Cambodia cannot have an environment conducive to free and fair elections.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said Cambodia won’t comply with demands made by foreign countries. “We are equally members of the United Nations,” Phay Siphan told Reuters. “This is a violation of Cambodia’s sovereignty.”
“We will hold elections according to what Cambodians want, based on Cambodian laws,” he added.
“While there has been a lot of focus on the opposition and political parties in Cambodia, it is also important to pay attention to threats and intimidation faced by civil society, human rights defenders and the independent media in the country,” said Sejin Kim of FORUM-ASIA.
The English-language Cambodia Daily newspaper shut last year after it was handed a US$6.3 million tax bill which its publishers said was politically motivated. A further 18 independent radio stations have been stopped from broadcasting.
Foreign-funded NGOs such as the National Democratic Institute have been shuttered.
“In the last six months alone ten individual defenders have faced judicial harassment and four organisations have either have been suspended or received threats of suspension or shutdown. And these numbers are growing,” said Kim.
Additional reporting from Reuters.