PHNOM PENH: Cambodia’s opposition leader Kem Sokha was released from jail early Monday a year after he was detained on treason charges, as the country’s strongman ruler loosens his grip on opponents after sweeping one-sided elections.
“Kem Sokha returned home at 3.30am,” his lawyer Chan Chen told AFP, after his release from a remote border prison.
A court official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Kem Sokha was freed on bail although his lawyer could not immediately confirm the conditions of his release.
He was arrested on Sept 3, 2017, and accused of treason as Cambodia’s premier Hun Sen deepened his pre-election crackdown on political rivals.
Until his release, he was in pre trial detention, facing up to 30 years if convicted. It is not yet clear if the charges have been dropped.
The case against Kem Sokha, 65, was widely seen as politically motivated and just two months later his opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) — the only serious rival to Hun Sen – was dissolved by a court.
That left the ruling party to win all 125 parliamentary seats in July’s election, turning the country into a one-party state and extending Hun Sen’s 33-year stay in office.
The CNRP made major gains during a 2013 election, propelled by significant dissatisfaction among Cambodia’s large youth population, in a surprise showing that rattled Hun Sen.
But the party was then decimated by Hun Sen’s crackdown last year, with many of its leading figures fleeing abroad. Kem Sokha’s predecessor Sam Rainsy lives in self-exile in Paris to escape a slew of charges that he says are politically motivated.
Western countries – who have long been major aid donors to Cambodia – criticised the most recent election, refusing to send monitors once the opposition was effectively neutered.
The US government has said the election was neither free nor fair and it “failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people”.
Last week, as he was sworn in for another term, Hun Sen insisted that the poll was “free, just, fair and transparent”.
Since the polls Hun Sen has begun to release critics from jail, a common relaxation of his grip on power that has followed election wins throughout his time in office.
Fourteen Cambodia opposition supporters jailed for insurrection were released last month.
Faced with criticism over his rights record, Hun Sen has increasingly moved Cambodia closer to China in recent years with Beijing becoming both a top donor and international investor.
Compared to western nations, Beijing’s largesse comes with far fewer strings attached in terms of pushing political freedoms and reform.
A former Khmer Rouge commander, Hun Sen has been seen by some as a stabilising force that helped bring roads and mega-malls to a country ravaged by decades of brutal civil war.
But critics say his long rule has been authoritarian and done little to halt rampant corruption while enriching a small clique of families, politicians and business figures who are close to the leader.