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E.U., Rights Groups Call for End to Attacks on Opposition

Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party President Kem Sokha shows off his ballot before voting in local elections in Chak Angre Leu on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sunday, June 4, 2017.

The U.S. Embassy on Tuesday echoed the E.U. statement in an email to VOA Khmer and called for the release of jailed CNRP president Kem Sokha.

The European Union and rights groups have said that Cambodia’s move to dissolve the opposition party would undermine the credibility of elections next year and deal a severe blow to democracy in the Southeast Asian country.

The government on Friday filed a complaint with the Supreme Court against the Cambodia National Rescue Party, prompting the E.U. to describe the development as “very worrying”.

“The enforced removal from the political scene of a party that won more than 40 percent of the popular vote in the recent commune and sangkat elections would be a serious blow to democracy in Cambodia and would undermine the credibility of the current election process. We urge the Government of Cambodia to reconsider," it said.

The U.S. Embassy on Tuesday echoed the E.U. statement in an email to VOA Khmer and called for the release of jailed CNRP president Kem Sokha.

“We are aware of press reports that the Cambodian Ministry of Interior filed a lawsuit with the Supreme Court requesting the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP),” Arend Zwartjes, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy, wrote in an email.

“Genuine competition is essential to democracy and to the legitimacy of Cambodia’s 2018 national elections. We urge the government to consider the serious implications of this action. We renew our call that the leader of the CNRP—Kem Sokha—be released from prison,” he added.

Sok Eysan, ruling Cambodian People’s Party spokesman, said the appeals would not deter the courts from dissolving the CNRP if it was found to have broken the law, which prohibits political parties from “associating” with convicted criminals.

“I think there is no choice but to implement the law to improve democracy,” he said.

Khieu Sopheak, an interior spokesman, declined to comment, but Phay Siphan, a government spokesman, said Cambodia was a sovereign and independent country and “not subject to any regime or under colonialism of any NGO or country.”

Separately, Human Rights Watch on Tuesday called the move a “naked grab for total power”.

“Governments that still insist Cambodia is democratically ruled should act to reverse this development or share the blame for democracy’s demise under Hun Sen’s autocratic rule,” said James Ross, its legal and policy director.

The Supreme Court is likely to uphold the complaint as the judiciary has historically operated at the behest of the ruling party.

The move comes amid a widespread crackdown on dissent ahead of the election, which has seen independent media targeted and a U.S.-funded democracy promotion group told to leave the country.

A defiant Sam Rainsy, the exiled former leader of the CNRP, told supporters in Italy last week that the crackdown would only provoke anger among Cambodians and while it would ensure the CPP won next year’s election “his victory over such an election has no value,” apparently referring to Prime Minister Hun Sen.