PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — Cambodia’s imprisoned opposition leader was freed on bail Sunday night after spending a year locked up on charges of treason widely seen as designed to neutralize his political power during a crucial election year.
The daughter of Kem Sokha, Kem Monovithya, confirmed that her father had been quietly released from the remote border prison where he was being held and then driven to his Phnom Penh home under guard. As a condition of his release, he will not be able to leave the city block surrounding his house, she said.
His bail was granted on grounds of ill health, according to a statement released by a Cambodian court. After having been held in isolation and with scant access to medical care for a year, Mr. Kem Sokha is suffering from diabetes and high blood pressure and has a serious shoulder issue that requires medical attention, his family has said.
The opposition leader was arrested at midnight on Sept. 3, 2017, and subsequently accused of conspiring with the United States in a plot to bring down Cambodia’s government. Mr. Kem Sokha has maintained his innocence and said he was only trying to take power through legal means, by winning elections.
He is emerging from prison to a very different Cambodia than the one he left behind. Over the last year, his entire political movement has been dismantled. His Cambodia National Rescue Party was deemed illegal by a government-packed court in November, and more than 100 of its top officials were banned from politics.
Many fled the country, as did his two children, who were branded spies in the government-aligned news media. Journalists and human rights groups, particularly those with ties to the United States, were also targets of the sweeping pre-election crackdown by the country’s authoritarian prime minister, Hun Sen, who coasted to re-election victory in July in a vote that was widely criticized as rigged.
Ou Virak, a Cambodian-American economist who heads Future Forum, a research institute based in Phnom Penh, said that Mr. Kem Sokha’s imprisonment had served its purpose and that the release was expected, given Mr. Hun Sen’s longtime habit of imprisoning his rivals and critics ahead of elections and freeing them afterward.
Several other high-profile political prisoners have been released over the last few weeks, including two journalists also accused of treason, a prominent land-rights activist and a political analyst who had angered the prime minister.
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In June, Washington announced that Gen. Hing Bun Heang, the head of Mr. Hun Sen’s large paramilitary bodyguard unit, would face financial sanctions because of the unit’s role in human rights abuses.
Last month, the State Department said it would impose visa restrictions on officials accused of “undermining democracy in Cambodia,” along with their families. In announcing the restrictions, Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswoman, once again called for the release of political prisoners, including Mr. Kem Sokha.
“I think there seems to be a bit of nervousness in the country because I think most people are not sure of what will come next, whether there are more names to be added” to the sanctions list, Mr. Ou Virak said. He said Cambodia also fears that the United States will take action against its financial sector.
Also at risk is Cambodia’s preferential access to European Union markets under the bloc’s “Everything but Arms” policy to aid developing countries. On Thursday, the European Union is scheduled to debate whether to take action over Mr. Kem Sokha’s imprisonment.
But the most important factor in the release, Mr. Ou Virak said, was the fact that the elections in July had gone smoothly for the government. While Mr. Kem Sokha’s party once had high hopes of winning, in its absence Mr. Hun Sen’s party swept every seat, making Cambodia a de facto one-party state.
“The elections are over, power is cemented, and everything seems to be where it ought to be according to the ruling party, and therefore there is no need to keep Kem Sokha in prison,” he said.
Journalists and supporters gathered outside the newly freed leader’s house on Monday, but his lawyer said Mr. Kem Sokha would not speak publicly for the time being.
Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament and chairman of Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, which promotes democracy in member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, said the group welcomed Mr. Kem Sokha’s release, but that he still faced serious charges that were undoubtedly political.
“Until free and fair elections are held,” he said, “the international community must continue to see this government for what it is — a dictatorship.”
Source: NY Times