Opposition leader Kem Sokha said he would continue to fight for his innocence hours after a Phnom Penh court changed the conditions of his bail, allowing him to move within the country, but still restricting his travel overseas or preventing him from engaging in political activity.
This morning the Phnom Penh Municipal Court released a document adjusting Sokha’s bail conditions. Earlier he was only allowed to only move within the three streets bordering his residence, effectively keeping him in house arrest. Kem Sokha was arrested in 2017 in a midnight raid and charged with treason and released on bail a year later.
Additionally, many of his Cambodia National Rescue Party colleagues fled the country, the party was disbanded by the Supreme Court and 118 of its senior members banned from politics.
The new order stated that the conditions were being adjusted keeping in mind Kem Sokha’s health concerns and his continued cooperation with the court, with court spokesperson Y Rin confirming that he was free to travel anywhere in the country.
Following the new order, Kem Sokha posted on his Facebook page that the new restrictions were not an exoneration and that he would continue to demand that the court absolve him of the treason charges.
“As I am an innocent person who suffered detention for more than 2 years, I continue to demand the [court] to drop the charge against me,” he said in the Facebook post.
“I hope that today decision is the first step, but I and others who have been stripped off freedom to politics still demand solution and justice.”
Kem Sokha’s daughter, Kem Monovithya, said on social media that the new bail conditions came after his lawyers requested the court to drop the charges on November 7.
“Today, the court lifted some restrictions on his house arrest but a few restrictions remain. We still continue to call for the drop of all charges and reinstatement of his political rights,” she wrote on Twitter.
Pheng Heng, one of Kem Sokha’s defense lawyers, said the new order was a positive development but that the legal team would continue to get the charges dropped.
The development comes days before the European Commission’s deadline of November 12 to file a report potentially suspending Cambodia’s access the crucial ‘Everything But Arms’ trade preferences. The trade bloc had put the country on notice in February for systemic human rights violations that could trigger a suspension of the trade benefits that is critical to Cambodia’s economy.
Also, Kem Sokha’s colleagues, including exiled leaders Sam Rainsy and Mu Sochua, are attempting to return to Cambodia but have so far missed a November 9 deadline. This was in part due to Cambodia’s leaning on its ASEAN neighbors to restrict the exiled opposition members’ movements.
Former Philippines MP and member of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights Teddy Baguilat said the move was clearly an attempt to please the international community, which has been considering sanctions in light of Cambodia’s democratic backslide.
"We, of course, welcome any improvement to the conditions for Kem Sokha but terming this as a ‘release’ is misleading and clearly an attempt by Hun Sen to ward of international sanctions on him and his regime, including from the European Union, which is considering withdrawing its EBA trade preference to Cambodia due to the human rights violations committed under the current government,” he said, in an email statement.
Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director for Human Rights Watch, expressed similar views and said nothing short of dropping charges against Kem Sokha and his CNRP colleagues, along with reinstating the CNRP, would be considered acceptable.
“No one should forget that while Sokha has been unjustly confined to his house, the Cambodian government has been rolling up CNRP activists across the country, issuing charges against over 80 people, arresting and jailing dozens, and manufacturing politically motivated charges of ‘plotting a coup’ that totally lack credibility” he said.
The United States embassy in Phnom Penh issued a short statement on Sunday saying it was aware of the “limited step forward” but strongly urged for more concrete action to lift all charges against Kem Sokha.
“We note the partial lifting of restrictions on former National Assembly VP Kem Sokha. This is a step in the right direction, but for genuine progress his full rights & freedoms must be restored. I met him in 2017 & hope to see him participate fully in political life ASAP,” wrote US Ambassador W. Patrick Murphy on his Twitter account.
Despite the swift response from the international community, Law Ministry spokesperson Chin Malin said the government could not interfere in the independent functioning of the courts.
“The government could not do as the international community request [to release Kem Sokha] as it is a court decision which his independent from the government,” Chin Malin told VOA Khmer in a WhatsApp message.
Additional reporting by Men Kimseng and Sok Khemara