Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha (L) is arrested and escorted by police at his home in Phnom Penh on September 3, 2017. Photo: AFP/Stringer
Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha (L) is arrested and escorted by police at his home in Phnom Penh on September 3, 2017. Photo: AFP/Stringer

The leader of Cambodia’s banned main opposition party was released from prison to house arrest today (September 10) after spending a year in pre-trial detention on treason charges.

Kem Sokha, 65, was quietly released from the remote Trapeang Phlong prison near the Vietnamese border and driven to his home in the capital Phnom Penh on Monday morning. He had been denied bail several times before today’s release.

His circumscribed freedom comes just months after the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has been in power since 1979, easily won a general election in May where it secured all 125 seats in the National Assembly. Prime Minister Hun Sen retained the premiership, making him one of the world’s longest serving leaders.

The CNRP, formally dissolved by court order last November on charges of trying to overthrow the government, was barred from competing in an election many in the international community viewed as “illegitimate.”

Many analysts thought the CNRP had a chance to win the July 29 polls if they were held free and fair.

Kem Sokha, the CNRP’s president, was arrested in September 2017 on what many saw as trumped-up treason charges. The government accused his party of fomenting a “color revolution” with backing from the United States aimed at toppling Hun Sen’s regime.

A supporter of Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) shouts slogans in a rally on the last day of the commune election campaign in Phnom Penh on June 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
A supporter of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) at a commune election campaign event in Phnom Penh, June 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

“The ‘color revolution’ Sokha is accused of leading is a myth, created by the [CPP] to justify its plan to dissolve the opposition political party, crack down on civil society, and triumph in a sham election,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“There’s been no justice served here, just the temporary release of an opposition political leader that prosecutors could undo at any time,” he added.

Today’s release was widely unexpected given that he had been denied bail by the Supreme Court on August 22. The court last month ruled to extend his pre-trial detention by six months, with judges citing national security concerns.

Kem Sokha is thought to now be under house arrest so that he can receive medical treatment for long-standing ailments, according to court documents.

His daughter, Kem Monovithya, who serves as the CNRP’s deputy director-general of public affairs, told local media he suffered from “high blood sugar” and need shoulder surgery. Some unconfirmed reports said he is not allowed to travel outside of a four-block zone surrounding his home.

He hasn’t yet spoken to the public and his lawyer reportedly said that he wouldn’t for the foreseeable future. Nor was it clear at publication time if he has been in contact with any of his CNRP members.

Conditions of his release, according to court papers, ban him from meeting CNRP politicians and foreigners, and attending political meetings.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers an address during an opening ceremony for the Khmer New Year at Bayon temple at the Angkor complex in Siem Reap province on April 13, 2018.Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen at the Angkor complex in Siem Reap province on April 13, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

“There are limits to his freedom, the bogus charges against him still stand, and he must appear in court whenever prosecutors snap their fingers,” HRW’s Robertson said in a statement. “While it’s a step forward that he’s out of detention, he should never have been arrested in the first place.”

The reason for his release is already a matter of debate.

The most obvious explanation is now that the CPP has secured unchallenged political power it no longer feels the need to detain him. Indeed, soon after the July general election analysts began speculating that Kem Sokha would soon be released on bail, though accounts differed as to when.

Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles, says that Kem Sokha was probably released into house arrest because his “continued arbitrary detention was of no benefit, and his release was of no loss, to the authorities, so they let him out.”

Though he added that “putting someone on bail and under house arrest is only incrementally better than imprisoning him.”

This year, the Hun Sen government has engaged in its usual practice of arresting critics before general elections and then pardoning or releasing them afterwards.

Supporters of Kem Sokha, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), stand outside the Appeal Court during a bail hearing for the jailed opposition leader in Phnom Penh, Cambodia September 26, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring
Supporters of Kem Sokha during a previous bail hearing for the opposition leader in Phnom Penh, September 26, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

Imprisoned land-rights activist Tep Vanny received a royal pardon last month, at the request of Hun Sen, as did 14 former CNRP officials after being convicted of alleged illegal political activity in 2015.

Two former Radio Free Asia journalists arrested for “espionage” last year and detained for nine months were also released on bail last month.

Kem Sokha’s release fits in with the pattern, however it begs the question why he was denied bail by the Supreme Court on August 22, at which his pre-trial detention was actually extended by six months.

Some analysts think that he was suddenly released because of the government’s concern that he could die while in jail.

He is known to suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure and while locked up in the remote Trapeang Phlong prison for almost a year he was held in solitary confinement and reportedly denied medical attention.

“If Kem Sokha died in prison then he would become a martyr. Hun Sen definitely did not want this,” says Paul Chambers, a political analyst at the College of Asean Community Studies at Naresuan University in Thailand.

Another explanation for his impromptu release points to the government’s desire to quell rising international criticism.

Since the CNRP’s dissolution, the US government has imposed visa bans and economic sanctions on the country, and threatened to stiffen financial sanctions on senior officials within the CPP and military, including on Hun Sen’s family.

Hing Bun Hieng, the commander of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen's bodyguard unit, stands at the International Airport of Phnom Penh as he travels to Singapore for the 32nd ASEAN Summit, in Phnom Penh, April 27, 2018. Photo: Reuters
Hing Bun Hieng, the commander of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s bodyguard unit, in a file photo. Photo: Reuters

In June, the head of Hun Sen’s private bodyguard unit, General Hing Bun Hieng, was sanctioned because of his role in human rights abuses. Those sanctions included asset freezes and bans on US firms from doing business with him.

These same sanctions would apply to dozens of high-level officials, including Hun Sen and his family, if the Cambodia Democracy Act passes the US Senate. It was accepted by the US House of Representatives in July.

In August, the State Department expanded visa sanctions on Cambodian officials because they were “undermining democracy,” a department spokesman said in a statement.

The European Union has also threatened to remove Cambodia from its Everything But Arms (EBA) scheme, a preferential trade deal, a move that would severely affect the country’s export-driven economy.

The US and EU have demanded that Cambodia restore the CNRP as a legitimate party, end its attack on free speech and, importantly, release Kem Sokha from jail.

“Since the CPP has now won every seat in the legislature, releasing Kem Sokha serves as a mere public relations stunt by the state to mollify domestic and international criticism of Cambodia’s dismal human rights record,” says Chambers.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) casts his vote during the general elections as his wife Bun Rany (centre L) looks on in Phnom Penh on July 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Manan Vatsyayana
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) casts his vote during general elections on July 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Manan Vatsyayana

Foreign governments had not yet responded to the news of his release when Asia Times went to press.

Michelle Bachelet, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said at a session of the UN Human Rights Council on Monday that she “welcomes” Kem Sokha’s release, but stressed that “the [Cambodian] government should also release, and drop charges against, all other political actors, journalists and ordinary citizens arrested or convicted for exercising their human rights.”

It’s possible, analysts say, that the decision could mollify foreign critics and prevent the imposition of threatened economic and financial sanctions.

But independent activists said that the international community shouldn’t be fooled by the move. Charles Santiago, a Malaysian parliamentarian and chairman of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, said in a statement that Kem Sokha’s release actually shows the “unprecedented powers of a one-state party and its abuse of the country’s institutions for political gain.”

He added: “It is far from all that is required: whilst there remains only one political party in Parliament and no viable opposition, and until free and fair elections are held, the international community must continue to see this government for what it is – a dictatorship.”

Analysts remain uncertain about how it will affect the remnants of the CNRP. Sam Rainsy, who was the CNRP president before Kem Sokha and now living in exile, recently co-founded an international movement to agitate the Cambodian diaspora and lobby foreign governments into imposing punitive measures.

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy (front left) raises hands with Kem Sokha in 2014. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy
Sam Rainsy (L) raises hands with Kem Sokha (R) in 2014. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Video footage showed that Sam Rainsy only learned of Kem Sokha’s release while in the middle of giving a speech in Canada, when he was informed of the news by his wife Tioulong Saumura.

At the time of publication, none of the CNRP grandees, including Sam Rainsy and party Vice President Mu Sochua, have released public statements about Kem Sokha’s release.

There are certain concerns that Hun Sen might leverage the release to sow divisions between CNRP supporters, who have long been split between those loyal to Sam Rainsy and those who favor Kem Sokha.

Both men co-founded the CNRP in 2012 by merging their own political parties. Others, however, reckon that Kem Sokha’s release might in fact embolden critics of the CPP-dominated government.

“CNRP leaders already know they cannot separate from each other. If that happens, their supporters will be divided, then the CPP’s strategy will succeed in destroying the opposition,” says Noan Sereiboth, a political blogger.