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, June 4, 2017.
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, June 4, 2017.

WASHINGTON - Cambodian opposition leader Kem Sokha was arrested Sunday on an espionage charge, accused of conspiring with a foreign power to harm the country, according to a government statement.

Kem Sokha's daughter, Kem Monovithya, tweeted: “Kem Sokha and all bodyguards are taken away by 100-200 police without warrant after they raided his home. We don't know where they take him.”

The Cambodian government said Kem Sokha, leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, had been charged with espionage based on his comments in a video broadcast by the private Cambodian Broadcasting Network, based in Melbourne, Australia.

The video “and other evidence collected by the competent authority,” a government statement in Phnom Penh said, “clearly proves a conspiracy between Kem Sokha and accomplices with foreign power, which harms the Kingdom of Cambodia."

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights called for Sokha's immediate and unconditional release.

Malaysian Parliament member Charles Santiago, chair of the APHR, said Sokha's arrest was “a blatant violation of parliamentary immunity protection under the Cambodian constitution, and an affront to the rule of law.”

Santiago said that Sokha's arrest meant that the Cambodian ruling party's crackdown against opposition was now at “an alarming new level.”

The espionage charge against Sokha carries a jail term of 15 to 30 years. The statement said he was arrested “in flagrante delicto,” meaning “caught in the act,” which allowed authorities to override his customary immunity as a member of parliament.

The arrest followed the script of a wild conspiracy narrative aired recently by the pro-government group known as Fresh News. Its website has claimed, without any supporting evidence, that the CIA, U.S. diplomats, nongovernmental organizations and journalists in Cambodia, a Taiwanese “extremist group” and the opposition leader's family all have been plotting a “color revolution” — a reference to pro-democracy movements' attempts to overthrow autocratic regimes in parts of the former Soviet Union, the Balkans and the Middle East.

Cambodia has been in the midst of a sweeping crackdown on free speech by the government, which has shut down more than a dozen radio stations, an independent newspaper and the National Democratic Institute, a U.S. government-funded NGO.

The latest came on Monday, when one of Cambodia's most stridently independent newspapers, The Cambodia Daily, published its last edition, under the headline “Descent Into Outright Dictatorship.” Authorities used an alleged $6.3 million overdue tax bill to force the newspaper to close its doors; the publishers deny they owed any back taxes.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen greets garment w
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen greets garment workers during a visit to the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Aug. 23, 2017.

The recent tough approach by Prime Minister Hun Sen's government followed growing support for the opposition, especially among younger voters.

Hun Manith, one of Hun Sen's sons, tweeted that Kem Sokha had confessed to having long-term plans with the United States.

“Thank to him [sic], we now know who was (is) the Third Hand…,” he tweeted.

David Josar, deputy spokesman of the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh, told The Phnom Penh Post earlier this week all such claims against the U.S. government were “categorically false,” and “intended to draw attention away from the recent deterioration in Cambodia's political climate.”

The Cambodian government was almost toppled in the last national election in 2013 and is fighting for re-election in a ballot set for mid-2018. Former Khmer Rouge commander Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades.

Analyst Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen's Cambodia, said the surprising arrest of Kem Sokha signaled a departure from the regime's customary tactic of alternating repression and relaxation.

“They seem to be tearing up the rules by which Cambodia's pseudo-democracy has run for the past 25 years,” Strangio said. “All bets are off right now. That's really the feeling I'm getting.”

Human rights

John Sifton, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, called the arrest “a disastrous setback” for human rights in Cambodia.

“For 33 years, Hun Sen has used violence, threats, corruption and bogus legal charges to stay in power, and in the last year has been intensifying his attacks on civil society and the political opposition,” Sifton said in a statement.

“Cambodia's allies and donors should condemn this latest attack on democracy, and summon Cambodian ambassadors abroad to explain their government's actions,” Sifton added. “The international community, which provides a major percentage of the Cambodian government's annual budget, should put Hun Sen on notice that if he doesn't reverse course, it will be impossible to consider next year's elections free and fair.”