The fledgling Grassroots Democracy Party, one of four vying in the upcoming national elections, has called for an end to the imprisonment of Kem Sokha, the former president of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party being held in pretrial detention facing charges of “treason”. In a statement, the party requested instead that Sokha be released or placed under “house arrest”, a gesture they say would create a “better political atmosphere”.
The government said such a request was “impossible”.
In the statement, released on Friday to coincide with today’s birthday of King Norodom Sihamoni, the GDP expressed a desire to ease the political tensions in the Kingdom.
“GDP strongly urges the Royal Cambodian Government, in a gesture of humanity and in order to improve the political atmosphere ahead of elections, to release Mr Kem Sokha on bail or at least be put under house arrest under the court’s supervision,” the statement reads.
The two-paragraph statement went further still, requesting the government release all “prisoners of conscience” and land-rights activists.
Sokha, the former CNRP president, has been imprisoned at Trapaing Phlong Prison in distant Tbong Khmum province, near Vietnam’s border, since his September arrest on “treason” charges. All of his previous bail requests have been rejected.
The accusations against him were largely based on video footage from 2013 of him telling supporters in Australia that he had long received assistance from the US and academic experts as part of a political strategy to effect change in Cambodia, which the government maintained was proof that Sokha had conspired with foreign agents to plot a coup.
“The treason of colluding with foreigners to betray the nation requires [us] to make an immediate arrest,” Prime Minister Hun Sen said hours after the arrest.
Since his arrest, the charges have been widely panned by the international community, as has the forced dissolution of opposition party CNRP – seen as the nation’s only viable opposition – over allegations it was fomenting a “colour revolution”.
Sam Inn, secretary-general and spokesman for the GDP, which was founded by slain activist Kem Ley, told The Post yesterday that calls for the release of Sokha were based on the belief of party members that the arrest was “unjust” and that the treason allegations are unsubstantiated.
He added that the Kingdom’s image on the world stage was at stake.
“In conclusion, it’s not a good image for the government to arrest and accuse Kem Sokha, whose CNRP party represented the more than 3 million people who voted for it. We think it’s not just and that it affects the reputation of the nation on the international stage,” he said.
“If the government releases Kem Sokha, it would go a long way towards easing the political situation and help promote the dignity of the country.”
Human Rights Watch has also long called for Sokha’s release, despite the likelihood of such a request falling on deaf ears.
“The only way to make the July elections credible is for PM Hun Sen to release Kem Sokha immediately and without conditions, and let the CNRP register and compete without obstacles,” said Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “There is probably zero chance that the government will let him go, but the courageous GDP deserves credit for demanding this from the government.”
Speaking on a possible compromise solution of placing Sokha under house arrest, Robertson said: “While it would be a welcome humanitarian step to release Kem Sokha on bail so he can be with his family, that’s not enough to restore the credibility of the forthcoming elections.”
The government on Sunday threw cold water on the idea of a release or bail, with the Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan saying that the GDP’s request to release Sokha was “impossible”.
“We have no law allowing us to put [detainees] under house arrest like in Myanmar, where Aung San Suu Kyi was held. There is no law or procedure . . . it’s impossible,” he said.
Prior to Sokha’s arrest he spent nearly six months under de facto house arrest in 2016 to avoid jail time resulting from a separate case involving prostitution charges.