Cambodia hit back on Wednesday at the U.S. State Department over its call for all charges against former opposition leader Kem Sokha to be dropped, saying the politician was being allowed to live at home — under de facto house arrest — on humanitarian grounds.
Sokha, former president of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, was arrested on September 3, 2017 on a treason charge and jailed. He was released a year later but ordered to remain within a few blocks of his home in Phnom Penh’s Tuol Kork district.
Marking two years since the arrest, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus called the charges against Sokha “baseless” and said the Cambodian government had yet to produce any credible evidence to back its claims, which were later used to dissolve the CNRP.
“The United States again calls upon the Cambodian government to drop all charges against Kem Sokha, restore his civil and political rights, and free all those arbitrarily detained,” Ortagus said in a video posted on the U.S. Embassy’s Facebook page on Monday.
“We urge the Cambodian government to take concrete steps to promote reconciliation by allowing media and civil society to operate without fear of intimidation or reprisal for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association under international law,” she added.
In response, the Foreign Affairs Ministry accused the U.S. of attempting regime change in Cambodia through undemocratic means, and demanded that Washington stop interfering in domestic politics.
“Since 9 September 2018, Kem Sokha has already been released for humanitarian reasons — to remain in the comfort of his home with his family — under court surveillance,” the ministry statement said.
“Like other civil law countries, Cambodia’s judicial procedure does not provide for a maximum period for a case under court surveillance,” it said.
Sokha’s daughter Kem Monovithya said on Tuesday that the issue was not about being comfortable but about freedom.
“The point is he needs freedom, including political freedom again,” Monovithya said. “He is not able to go places as a normal citizen and he’s not able to conduct political activities,” she added.
“He’s not even allowed to speak to his colleagues or meet with the media. They need to restore his civil and political rights,” Monovithya said.
In November 2017, two months after Sokha’s arrest, the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and banned 118 of its leaders from politics for five years. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party subsequently swept the July 2018 nation election, winning all 125 seats in the National Assembly.
The case against Sokha appears to stem from a video of a speech he gave in Melbourne in 2013. According to a government transcript of the video, Sokha said he had been assisted by the U.S. since his foray into politics in 1993 and was advised in recent years to encourage grassroots demonstrations similar to those that toppled Yugoslavian dictator Slobodan Milosevic in 2000.