NEW YORK —
Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested early Sunday on an espionage charge, accused of conspiring with a foreign power to harm the country, according to a government statement.
Kem Sokha’s daughter, Kem Monovithya, tweeted: “Kem Sokha and all bodyguards are taken away by 100-200 police without warrant after they raided his home. We don’t know where they take him.”
The Cambodian government statement said Kem Sokha, the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, had been charged with espionage under Article 443 of Cambodia’s criminal code.
“The Royal Government would like to inform the public that according to a video clip broadcasted by the Cambodian Broadcasting Network, based in Australia, and other evidences collected by the competent authority, it clearly proves the conspiracy between Kem Sokha and the accomplices with foreign power, which harms the Kingdom of Cambodia,” the statement read.
ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) Chair Charles Santiago, a member of Malaysian Parliament, called for Sokha’s immediate and unconditional release.
He said in a statement that Sokha’s arrest was “a blatant violation of parliamentary immunity protection under the Cambodian constitution and an affront to the rule of law.”
Santiago said that Sokha’s arrest took the ongoing crackdown of the opposition by Cambodian ruling party to “an alarming new level.”
The espionage charge against Sokha carries a jail term of 15 to 30 years. The statement said Kem Sokha was arrested “in flagrante delicto,” which means caught in the act, and allows for a lawmaker’s parliamentary immunity to be lifted.
His arrest follows the script of a conspiracy narrative the pro-government website Fresh News has written recently without citing supporting evidence, in which the CIA, the U.S. Embassy, nongovernmental organizations, journalists, a Taiwanese “extremist group” and the opposition leader’s family are all accused of plotting a color revolution.
The term color revolution refers to pro-democracy movements that have swept through states in the former Soviet Union, the Balkans and the Middle East to nonviolently overthrow autocratic regimes.
At the same time, the Cambodian government has launched a sweeping crackdown on free speech, shutting down more than a dozen radio stations, an independent newspaper and the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-government-funded NGO.
The tougher approach by the Cambodian government led by Prime Minister Hun Sen comes against a backdrop of growing opposition support, especially among younger voters.
Hun Manith, one of Hun Sen’s sons, tweeted that Kem Sokha had confessed to having long-term plans with the United States.
“Thank to him [sic], we now know who was (is) the Third Hand … ,” he tweeted.
David Josar, deputy spokesman of the U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh, told The Phnom Penh Post earlier this week that such claims against the U.S. government were “categorically false” and “intended to draw attention away from the recent deterioration in Cambodia’s political climate.”
'Tearing up the rules'
The Cambodian government was almost toppled in the last national election in 2013 and is fighting for re-election in mid-2018.
It has ruled for more than three decades under the leadership of former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen.
Analyst Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said the arrest came as a surprise and signaled a departure from the tactic of alternating repression and relaxation that the regime has typically employed.
“They seem to be tearing up the rules by which Cambodia’s pseudodemocracy has run for the past 25 years,” Strangio said. “All bets are off right now, that’s really the feeling I’m getting.”
In a statement, John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, called the arrest “a disastrous setback for Cambodia’s human rights situation.”
“For 33 years, Hun Sen has used violence, threats, corruption and bogus legal charges to stay in power, and in the last year has been intensifying his attacks on civil society and the political opposition,” the statement said.
“Cambodia’s allies and donors should condemn this latest attack on democracy, and summon Cambodian ambassadors abroad to explain their government’s actions,” Sifton’s statement said. “The international community, which provides a major percentage of the Cambodian government’s annual budget, should put Hun Sen on notice that if he doesn’t reverse course, it will be impossible to consider next year’s elections free and fair.”
VOA has not yet been able to reach the Cambodian government, police or opposition for comment.
The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh and the U.S. State Department also have yet to reply to requests for comment.