PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — A court in Cambodia on Friday found Kem Sokha, leader of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, guilty of treason and sentenced him to 27 years imprisonment to be served under house arrest.
Judge Koy Sao of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court said Kem Sokha, backed by foreign powers, had used human rights and politics as a guise to organize people to stage a “color revolution” aimed at toppling the legal government. The maximum sentence on the charge is 30 years.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was dissolved shortly after his 2017 arrest on related charges.
The ruling, four months ahead of a general election, is the latest blow against the opposition, which has faced years of legal harassment from the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen. Kem Sokha, 69, is the country’s most prominent opposition politician not in exile — others having fled abroad to escape what were generally seen as politically inspired prosecutions.
The court said Kem Sokha is barred from all political activity, including voting, and not allowed to meet with outsiders, Cambodian or foreign, except for family members. He may leave the house only with the court’s permission.
His lawyer, Ang Udom, told reporters he will file an appeal within one month.
Kem Sokha was head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party when he was arrested in September 2017. The government charged that an old video of him speaking at a seminar about receiving advice from U.S. pro-democracy groups was proof of collusion with a foreign power to illegally take power.
His arrest marked the beginning of a fierce campaign by the government to use the courts — widely considered to be under its influence — to silence its critics in the political and media spheres or drive them out of the country.
Rights organizations decried Friday’s court ruling. “The Cambodian justice system has once again shown its jaw-dropping lack of independence by convicting Kem Sokha on baseless, politically motivated charges,” Amnesty International Deputy Regional Director Ming Yu Hah said in an emailed statement. “This verdict is an unmistakable warning to opposition groups months before national elections. The use of the courts to hound opponents of Prime Minister Hun Sen knows no limits.”
The United States Embassy in Cambodia also said it was “deeply troubled” by the conviction. U.S. Ambassador Patrick Murphy, along with representatives of other Western nations, had attended Friday’s hearing.
“Denying Kem Sokha and other political figures their freedom of expression and association undermines Cambodia’s constitution, international commitments, and past progress to develop as a pluralist and inclusive society,” said the U.S. statement, emailed to journalists.
Kem Sokha’s trial started in January 2020 but was soon suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak and resumed in 2022.
The popular CNRP was seen as an electoral threat to Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party ahead of the 2018 general election. Kem Sokha’s arrest was swiftly followed by the dissolution of the party by the Supreme Court in November 2017, after the government accused it of plotting its overthrow.
The CNRP had been the only credible opponent of Hun Sen’s party, which consequently swept all the seats in the National Assembly. Rights groups and Western nations charged that the election was neither free nor fair.
Crackdowns continued even after the 2018 polls, as more than 100 former CNRP members and civil society activists were targeted with the charge “incitement to commit a felony” for their nonviolent political activities.
Hun Sen’s 2023 election opponents have come under similar pressure. In October, Son Chhay, a deputy president of the Candlelight Party — the CNRP’s de facto successor — was fined the equivalent of $750,000 for remarks he made alleging unfairness and irregularities in the 2022 local elections.
Thach Setha, another of the party’s leaders, was arrested in January for allegedly issuing several bounced checks in 2019.
Hun Sen has been in power for 38 years and has vowed to stay in office until 2028. He has endorsed one of his sons to succeed him. He uses guile and threats to exercise authoritarian power in the framework of electoral democracy.
Kem Sokha was released from prison on bail in September 2018, more than a year after he was arrested, and put under house arrest. In November 2019, he was freed from house arrest but still banned from political activity.
The co-founder of the CNRP, Sam Rainsy, has been in self-imposed exile since 2015, avoiding prison for a defamation conviction along with a slew of other legal charges brought by the government. As in Kem Sokha’s case, the charges are widely seen as politically motivated.
Sam Rainsy was the de facto leader of the party while Kem Sokha was in prison before his release on bail. Tensions grew between supporters of the two opposition leaders because some felt Kem Sokha faced more pressure from Hun Sen’s government while Sam Rainsy was free in exile.
The legal actions against Kem Sokha were widely seen as encouraging a split between the two. Hun Sen is an adroit political operator, and has a record of using divide-and-conquer tactics against his foes.
Kem Sokha’s political career began in 1993 when Cambodia held an election organized by the United Nations after more than two decades of war and unrest, and he was elected to the National Assembly. He established the independent Cambodian Center for Human Rights in 2002.
Rejoining politics in 2005, he founded the Human Rights Party, which finished third in the 2008 general election. In 2012, that party merged with Sam Rainsy’s original Candlelight Party to form the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which captured 55 seats out of 123 at stake in the 2013 election.