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 that Mr Kem Sokha, backed by foreign powers, had used human rights and politics as a guise to organise people to stage a “colour 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 the prime minister, Hun Sen.
Mr 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 Mr 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.
The Cambodian justice system has once again shown its jaw-dropping lack of independence by convicting Kem Sokha on baseless, politically motivated chargesMing Yu Hah, Amnesty International
Mr 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 US 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.
Human rights organisations 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. US 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 US statement.
Mr Kem Sokha’s trial started in January 2020 but was suspended due to the coronavirus outbreak and resumed in 2022.
The popular CNRP was seen as an electoral threat to Mr Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party ahead of the 2018 general election.
Mr 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 Mr 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 non-violent political activities.