The Cambodia National Rescue Party, the country’s main opposition, has dismissed claims of treason used as a pretext for the arrest of its president, Kem Sokha, early on Sunday morning.
Sokha was arrested at his home in Phnom Penh along with a number of close associates shortly after midnight and accused of “conspiring with foreigners” to destabilize Cambodia.
According to a government statement, Sokha was accused of “treason” based on a years-old video clip circulated online in which Sokha said he was encouraged to enter politics during a meeting with U.S. representatives.
The CNRP in a statement on Sunday called for Sokha’s immediate release and condemned the arrest of a lawmaker in violation of his constitutional immunity.
The party said the arrest “was politically motivated and an act of violating the law and constitutional law.”
Mu Sochua, CNRP vice president, said the arrest could lead to serious political tension.
“We are very disappointed with this arrest. This is a severe situation for our nation. We can see that the arrest of Kem Sokha was wrong legally and violated his rights as a lawmaker with parliamentary immunity,” she said.
Gen. Khieu Sopheak, interior spokesman, dismissed the CNRP’s comments, claiming the government had evidence to support their assertion that Sokha had committed treason and that Sokha’s actions risked returning the country to “civil war.”
Sokha could face up to 30 years in prison if found guilty.
In a video clip released by the government purporting to show Sokha speaking to supporters in Australia some years ago, the CNRP president says he was told by U.S. representatives that in a democratic society change must come from below.
“This is the political strategy for democratic countries, that’s what they do. And America, which supports me, they told me to follow the model of Yugoslavia, Serbia, that overthrew the dictator [Slobodan] Milocevic,” he is quoted as saying.
John Sifton, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, said in a statement on Sunday that Sokha’s arrest was a “disastrous setback” for Cambodian rights.
“The government’s charge lacks credibility, given its long record of misusing its legal system to silence or intimidate critics and political opponents,” he said.
Charles Santiago, a Malaysian lawmaker and chair of independent group Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights, which includes members of the CNRP, said the arrest showed that Prime Minister Hun Sen was “so afraid of what might happen in a genuine vote, he won’t allow for competition at all.”
“Kem Sokha’s arrest is a blatant violation of parliamentary immunity protections under the Cambodian constitution and an affront to the rule of law. He should be immediately and unconditionally released.”